A dangerous flaw in the horse’s behavior

There are a lot of things a horse can do that are dangerous to the rider or handler.

In the top ten, or even the top two, is a horse that will not yield to pressure: especially the pressure of the rider’s leg to mean move forward. Horses naturally move into pressure. So, we teach them to move away from pressure. the tied horse will not pull back when taught to yield to pressure. Pulling back is moving into pressure. using our leg to move a horse over often results in the horse kicking out on the same side. This too is moving into pressure. When we ask the horse to soften, the first response from the horse is often a rooting of his nose, sticking his nose out and forward, which is the horse moving into pressure also. A runaway horse is moving into pressure – the harder the reins are pulled, the faster he goes.

Imagine the need to get your horse away from a threatening situation. You apply the leg and the horse ignores the cue. It is like being stuck in quicksand as the threat overtakes you.

So, how do we change his mind about the useful response to pressure? The answer is quite simple. It is to hold the pressure or repeat the pressure until the horse gives us the response of moving away from that pressure. There is a great benefit to the horse for the correct response of moving away – he gets relief from the pressure. The pressure goes away when the horse yields.

The removal of the pressure, called the release, is usually the handler’s responsibility. A tied horse that pulls back will immediately feel the release of pressure when he stops pulling back. But, in most cases, the horse that is frantically pulling back in complete panic is in full self preservation mode and will not yield, especially if he has never figured out that yielding gives a better result.

That brings us to our responsibility as handlers and riders to teach the horse to move away from pressure. Patience and persistence and consistency from us will cause the horse to think of a better way to respond to pressure.

I had a student whose horse completely ignored the leg cues. In most cases like these, spurs are resorted to. Then, when the horse begins to ignore those, the whip or crop is brought out.

This rider entered the arena for a lesson with said spurs and crop, ready to “learn more”. He complained that his horse was often cranky and was really sluggish to move out. You wonder how that could be with crops and spurs in the scenario. I asked him to trot the horse out on a loose rein. The first thing this student did was lift his heels into the horse’s side. His heels were grinding up and down for a response. The horse had a sour look on his face and ears back. So, the rider turned his toes out and put the spurs into the horse’s side. The horse raised his nostril in discontent. After no significant response to move into a trot, the rider taps the horse in the ticklish spot on the flank. It was really a tickle more than a spank, which it should have been. Then he got the now cranky horse moving into a ho hum trot.

Does this description sound familiar? All or parts of it? By the time the horse was trotting, the rider was ticked off because of all the things he had to do to get moving. The horse was now in a bad mood because of all he had to endure. I, as the teacher, had my plan in mind, to eventually end up with a forward moving horse and a meaningful rider.

My first request to the rider was “choose the crop or the spurs, but not both”. Of course, (you heard this coming) he said that he needed both to get the horse to move out. I asked again, “Which one do you choose?” He chose to keep the crop. This is the usual answer because it is the last thing used by the rider that caused the horse to move forward.

By the middle of the lesson, I had the rider even drop the crop. The leg was now the only cue to mean move forward (the seat can also do this). When the now less cranky horse stilll did not respond energeyically to the leg cue, I asked the rider to lift his legs up to the level of his hips and let his legs fall on the horse’s sides. To the horse, this meant, “I really mean for you to move forward when I press my leg on your sides!!!” If this sounds harsh, please know that I learned this verbatum from the great Tom Dorrance. By the end of the lesson, after as many “reinforcements” as it took, the horse responded cheerfully, with ears forward, to the first leg cue alone.

Lesson like these will need repetition and reinforcement from time to time. As a famous horseman states, “It is not so important how you begin the ride, but how you end the ride.”

My former crop and spur carrying rider now left the lesson with a smiling horse and a new appreciation for “as little as it takes but as much as necessary to get the job done.”

This can be your experience to convince your horse to respond to your leg pressure. It is your responsibility to be consistent with the reinforcement. If you do your reinforcements as necessary, you would not need spurs or a crop 99% of the time you ride. I ride with spurs because they look cool! And, they are there for the 1% of the time that I might need them. If I use them 3% of the time for cues, then I should take them off to revisit the leg cue reinforcement lesson.

So, be consistent with the reinforcement of your cues. Horses will test us from time to time with this question, “Do your really mean what you are asking for?” When that question arises, be ready to simply answer, “Yes, and I will remind you with a reinforcement so you don’t forget.” Reinforcement will perpetuate the reality of “as little as it takes” to get the job done.

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