In the Performance horse world, there is a lot of talk about horses with heart or try. It seems like some horses have that magical spark to them that makes them want to give it their all in the show pen or on the barrel pattern.
There are many ways that a rider can either destroy their horse’s try, or encourage it and bring the horse to its full potential.
Horses learn from reward. I’m not talking about treats and petting, I’m talking about releasing pressure. Every time you give your horse a loose rein or you quit pressuring with your legs or spurs, you are rewarding their behavior. If you ask them for something and they give it to you, that is the instant you should be releasing pressure.
The mistake most people make is that when their horse responds correctly to a cue, they continue to ask and ask and ask until the horse eventually gets frustrated and gives up.
This is when timing comes into play. When you signal your horse to do something, such as walk forward, your first signal should be to squeeze and continue squeezing your legs until the horse moves forward into the walk then you should immediately release the pressure. When you release you are rewarding the horse for walking forward.
If you squeeze your legs and the horse stands there, then you give up and release, you have essentially taught the horse to stand still when you squeeze your legs.
Timing is everything in horsemanship. If you have good timing and know when you release and reward a behavior, you can teach a horse absolutely anything.
If you have poor timing and continually ask for more and more and more of your horse without ever taking the pressure off or giving them a break, you will no doubt end up with a very frustrated horse. Horses are always looking for the right answer, its up to us to show them what that answer is in a way that they understand.
This is incredibly important when you are working with a horse that seems to have given up. You have to reward their tiniest efforts to do the right thing so that they begin to try again.
Imagine if you were in a class room and your teacher asked you to answer a question that you didn’t know. If every time you guessed an answer she screamed no and continued to pressure you for the correct response, you would more than likely give up and shrink back in embarrassment. But what if every time you came closer to the right answer she proclaimed “Yes! You are on the right track!” You would probably continue putting in your best effort to find the answer.
Training horses is similar to this because they can only guess what we want and wait to be rewarded for the correct response.
If you find that your horse has quit working for you, its time to evaluate your timing. Are you rewarding your horse at the right time? Are you sending mixed signals? Are you giving your horse breaks to think about what you are teaching?
Nine times out of ten when I see a horse that has completely given up, it is because it is constantly being pulled on and pressured in some way or another and it is never rewarded for doing the right thing.
As a trainer, I might lope one big circle and reward my horse for ten different things in one loop. I will reward softness in the bridle, elevation through the front end, softness through the ribcage, impulsion and driving with the hind end, and the list goes on. From the ground you may not be able to see any of that. But if you watch close enough you would see my hands opening and closing to release pressure from the bit, you would see me turn my toe out and apply pressure with my leg, you would see me roll my spur to move my horses hip, you would notice my pelvis tilt to signal a change in pace.
It is the subtle ways that we apply and release pressure that allow us to develop our riding into more of a dance, and less of a battle.
Reward your horse as often as you can for as little as you can and watch your horse evolve and begin to try harder with each ride.