Go, whoa and in between

This blog is all about GO! All the time you are riding you are training. How can you improve your communication?

In my last blog on seat bone awareness, I described an exercise to help stabilise your pelvis. I hope you experimented and gained some insight for yourself.

Having become more still in the saddle, it is time to appraise your seat and leg aids, and in doing so I think it is helpful to look at some of the science behind training horses to respond to ‘aids’ .

I prefer to think of them as cues for behaviour, as this allows a clearer understanding of what you are asking your horse to do. This blog is a rough guide and in no way definitive. If you are interested I strongly encourage you to do some research of your own. Good references are Equitation Science by Paul McGreevey and Andrew Mclean, or Clicker Training for Horses by Alexander Kurland.

If you have difficulty resolving any training issue, I also strongly recommend that you first have you horse checked by your vet, and/or a qualified veterinary physiotherapist, to check his back, teeth and general soundness. Its easy to miss things.

Let’s look at ‘go’ in its simplest form, and the biomechanics and science that goes with it.

The universally trained cue for ‘go’ is lower leg pressure.  Later on in Oogy’s blog, I will be talking about how to train for this cue, but for now we will assume that our horse has this basic knowledge. (Quite a big assumption, I know!)

In an ideal world, you would apply a gentle momentary leg pressure behind the girth with the inside of your heel, and your horse would move forwards, and not stop until you gave him a slowing cue.

Two problems can arise here. First, for the horse to understand that he has got the question right, the rider must STOP giving the pressure cue once the horse is moving. Many riders carry on nudging or squeezing and aren’t aware of it. So the horse becomes confused, and gradually de-sensitizes to the leg aid. At this point some riders resort to spurs or higher energy feeds, but really the problem is confusion and lack of motivation.

The second problem is that, as the horse moves forward, the rider topples back, and gets left behind or pulls on the reins for balance. And I’m not just talking about beginners here!!! Take a look through the pages of a popular horsey magazine, and ask the question, ‘what would happen to that rider if we cut the reins?’  Toppling back means the horse underneath you becomes unbalanced, and pulling on the reins for stability means you are effectively also giving a slow down cue! We can now see why some horses are called lazy, when in fact they are just confused and disheartened.

Horses that are more prone to flight behaviour may deal with this by becoming even whizzier, which lands them in an even stronger bit, and so the problem goes on. I strongly recommend watching some video of yourself to see if you are doing things you are not aware of. This is one of the best ways of becoming motivated to improve. Don’t be critical of yourself, but instead try to notice what is really going on.

So how can you clean up your go cue?

First decide on a consistent signal for go, let’s say a pressure from the inside of your lower leg. Next, grade the pressure from zero to 10.

Zero is your intent and mental and physical preparation for going faster.

One is the lightest pressure.

Two is a gentle pressure.

Three is a quick nudge, and is the most you would want to give.

Four, five and six are increasing degrees of bigger kicks and shoves that are not really meaningful and mean that you have to move your lower leg too much, for too much time.

Seven is a decent, assertive, ‘I mean business’ leg pressure that the horse takes notice of.

Eight and nine and ten, are escalations into more pressure, such as a flick flack with the reins, or a tap with a crop behind the leg, or a verbal noise. *see note about pain.

So, start with zero, one, two, and three.  If your horse has not responded by the time you get past number three, then rather than nagging or shoving, miss out 4, 5 and 6 and go straight to seven. You must be clear and obvious about zero to three, and the idea is that if he doesn’t listen to the light cue, he has the consequence of a more uncomfortable pressure. Your seven must also be assertive and fair, and be without emotion, ie, no anger or frustration.

For your horse to make the link, you need to deliver the number seven kick immediately after he has not responded to the much lighter aids. Any delay will be confusing.

If he has been switched off for a long time, you may need to tap with the crop, or flick flack the end of the reins, as well as your number seven kick. This complete process needs to be repeated three times until he is willingly going forward from a light cue. That is his part of the deal.

If you think this sounds like a lot of effort and isn’t very nice for your horse, consider the effort you spend constantly nagging him, and how awful it must be for him to be constantly nagged. It’s much better to draw up a black and white agreement and stick to it.

Now for your part of the deal. If he agrees to go forward, you must be able to stabilise your body so that you don’t fall back, (see ‘bear down’ or core stability in previous blog) AND you mustn’t pull on the reins, or subconsciously wish he would go ‘fast but slow’! You must immediately stop the cue and keep your lower legs away from his side, so that he knows he has got the question right.

Sit still in the saddle and keep your seatbone movement to a minimum. Resist the urge to encourage your horse to accelerate by shoving or grinding.

Many riders moan about their horses lack of power, but in reality they are not confident or fit enough to deal with a burst of forwards impulsion. If this is the case, you must address your confidence and fitness before blaming the horse.

Oh, and went he gets it right, lots of scratches and praise.

If he is whizzy, the leg aid is probably the least of your concerns! However, being stable and independent of the reins are the first steps towards a better understanding, and learning to slow without a fight. I will look at this in the next blog.

The Science

What I have described above is operant conditioning using mostly negative reinforcement. It could also be equally well achieved using positive reinforcement, as in clicker training.

Operant conditioning: a type of learning in which an individual’s behavior is modified by its consequences. For example, if I apply a little hand pressure to the side of a horses hind quarters to ask him to yield, he might experiment with various behaviours to alleviate the pressure. As soon as he moves over away from the pressure (which is the response I want) I stop the pressure, and so he learns by consequence, or trial and error.

There are two ways to reinforce a behaviour, and this is where a lot of people become confused. The first is negative reinforcement, as per what I have described above, it is the removal of a pressure (be it physical, audible or visual) at the exact moment that the desired behaviour is performed.  It SHOULD NOT be confused with punishment. The term ‘negative’ merely implies the subtraction, or removal of a stimulus. The second is positive reinforcement. This is when behaviour that is offered is reinforced by the addition of a reward such as a scratch or a food treat, eg, horse walks into the trailer and receives a bucket of food, or stands quietly and receives a scratch on the withers.

Timing and concentration now become really important.

It is a personal choice how you choose to train your horse, and before you embark on any changes, its important to appraise the individual needs and personality of your horse and yourself. A regime that suits one horse and rider may not suit another, so take time to research options and think things through.

It’s impossible for me to deal with every scenario in this blog, but what I hope is that you become more curious about the conversation taking place between you and your horse, and by becoming more aware, life gets better for both of you!

*pain. Pain stops animals (and humans) from learning and is unlikely to enhance your training. The crop is best used by applying a serious of light taps, that are more likely to motivate by virtue of sound and repetition, than by actually stinging the skin. Experiment with tapping your boot for more noise, or tapping a square saddlecloth behind your lower leg for kinaesthetic pressure without pain.

 

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