How to Turn a Horse

Often when a new client brings me a horse of theirs for a training lesson I ask a few simple questions to make sure all three of us (them, their horse, and I) are all on the same page. Their responses are interesting and surprisingly consistent:

Me: How do you tell your horse to go?

Client: I speed up my seat and then squeeze my legs.

Me: How do you tell your horse to stop?

Client: I slow down my seat and then squeeze the reins.

Me: [So far so good…] And how do you tell your horse to turn?

Client: First I half halt with my reins and legs at the same time, then I turn my head and put my inside hip forward, with my inside leg at the girth and my outside leg back. Then my outside hip pushes forward and around, my inside rein opens, and my outside rein pushes while both legs squeeze alternately and I close my left eye and wiggle my right big toe.

Right. That was confusing. Do you think perhaps the horse is confused too?

Having different cues for different responses that are clearly separated from one another is incredibly important for our horses’ mental well-being. If pressure from the rider’s lower leg sometimes means ‘go’ and sometimes means ‘turn’ in a slightly different combination, it is easy to get a confused horse, and confused horses generally cope in one of two ways: they shut down and stop responding, or they overreact and develop unwanted behaviour.

This isn’t to say that cues can’t become more complicated and closer together as horse and rider both progress. The most physically complicated movement in dressage is the pirouette, a turn on the spot at either walk or canter, which combines three basic responses in the space of three steps—less than one stride! Even then, the cues do not come at the same time. The rider cues for each response one at a time to build it into the pirouette.

What does it take to get to that point?

For both training the horse and training a riding student, I start at the very beginning with the simplest cues, which are pressure-based. In a new or frightening situation, the pressure-based cues are what the horse can fall back on and respond to reliably. I always start, then, with leg pressure for go, rein pressure for stop, and a single rein to the side for turn.

If horse and rider were to stay at this stage, that would be alright, though a bit rustic. But neither would improve, and it is better for the horse to reduce pressure cues. When the basic pressure cues are understood and are becoming reliable, I start to introduce seat cues. These are the rider’s movement patterns in the saddle that the horse can feel and respond to before receiving pressure from the bit or legs. A rider may speed up the movement of the seat for ‘go’, slow it down for ‘stop’, or turn the torso for ‘turn’. The horse quickly learns to feel the weight shift and predict what pressure will come next, allowing him to act first and avoid the pressure. This learning process is called classical conditioning.

Classically conditioned cues like seat or voice cues are less reliable than pressure cues in a new or scary situation. That is why I do not begin with classical cues. I prefer to have a solid foundation for horse and rider that I can build on to create beautiful movement and mutual understanding.

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