As we ride, we are constantly asking our horses to do things. Faster, slower, turn, and stop. The stream of requests is nearly endless for the duration of the ride. For the most part, horses are pretty willing to go along with this program. It’s easy to imagine how praising your horse could make this whole thing more enjoyable for him, but have you thought about how it could also make you ride better? Try this:
To focus yourself and make your training more clear for your horse, practice asking for one thing (go, stop, turn, haunches-in, piaffe… it works at any level), and then asking yourself if you got the response you wanted from your horse. If you did, give him a quiet “good” and cease your aids. If you did not get the response you wanted, try asking one more time, slightly more firmly. If you get your response, give him the quiet “good” and cease the aids. If you didn’t get the response on this second attempt, it’s time to start trouble shooting. Did you ask correctly? Was your horse paying attention? Does he understand the aid? Depending on what went wrong, you may have to wake him up with a tap of your whip, or you may have to back up a step and make sure he understood what you’re asking for. (More on this coming soon!)
If you take some time to focus on this process, you can get into a little routine. Ask, check for response, good boy. This will make you tune into getting correct responses for each aid you give, and reinforce your aids or change your strategy as necessary. Your horse will appreciate the feedback (the verbal, as well as the very conscious release of the aids) and should quickly start to become more responsive to lighter aids. And by making yourself aware of each correct response, you will notice just how good your horse really was, and how many times he DID do what you asked, rather than focusing on the few times he didn’t!
You’ll also make yourself aware of times you might be tempted to nag him for a non-response rather than correct the first request with a slightly stronger aid. This ability to tune into each aid-response-reward is what separates those with an ability to train (at whatever level) from those who go around rather mindless of the aids they are giving (and giving, and giving, and giving…) and the responses they are getting (correct or not), or worse, the non-responses they are getting. It’s more of a mental thing than a riding skill thing, even a beginner can do this with walk-whoa transitions. Give it a try, and let me know how it works for you!