Helping Your Horse Better Understand Your Requests
Improve your communication and provide more consistent aids to your horse...
Doctor Krisztina Nagy (or Kristin) is an expert in horse behaviour. She boasts a PhD in Equine Behaviour, and is also an accredited Level 2 International coach specialising in Classical Dressage.
The second chapter with Dr Nagy addresses communication between horse and rider, and how to help your horse better understand what you’re asking for. Check out part 1 here on Understanding Causes of Behaviour Problems in Horses.
How do we help horses understand what we are asking for?
As we covered in part one, many behaviour problems in horses are down to miscommunications. Dr Nagy believes that changes to your daily interactions can make an enormous difference with regards to how your horse acts around you and how they respond to your requests both in and out of the saddle.
Remember, there are two main questions to consider:
- Does the horse understand what I am asking him/her to do?
- Is the horse feeling motivated to respond to my request?
If the answer to the first question is no, it’s up to us to make our request clear and understood by the horse. How do we do that?
Dr Nagy says “it’s possible that our signals or requests are not clear enough for the horse, or we are giving mixed signals. Just think about a beginner rider, who is trying to ask the horse to canter, giving leg or whip aids, but at the same time, due to lack of balance in his/her seat, or perhaps an unconscious fear from the speed or the canter itself, the rider pulls the reins.
"So the rider gives a go and a stop signal at the same time to the horse. This can cause the horse to disobey the canter request, especially if the horse is less trained or less experienced, simply because of being confused with what has been asked from him/her by the rider.
"Or another example, by constantly kicking the side of the horse again because of lack of balance of the rider, or bad habits of the rider’s leg, the horse learns to ignore leg aids, and become easily sluggish. In these cases it is the rider's lack of experience or knowledge and skills which teaches the horse to be less alert or sensitive to the rider’s aids in general.”
Those examples are very simplified and clear-cut versions of this lack of clear communication, but the point remains the same.
When you were first learning, you thought it was obvious that you were asking the horse to canter when in fact, your other requests were confusing the horse and asking him to slow down.
As we get more experienced, these requests or aids become smaller and less perceptible both under saddle and on the ground.
So instead of pulling when you ask for canter, you might be frustrated that your right half pass isn’t as fluent as your left one – only to find out that you’re weighting the wrong seatbone, for example.
Or you may wonder why your horse won’t stand still at the back of the stable as you get his bridle off the hook outside, but inadvertently change your body language and invite him into your space as you walk away.
"Timing is crucial in the training of the horse"
How do we modify behaviour to help a horse understand the question and give the right answer?
If your horse doesn’t understand what you’re asking, you have to change something. If somebody asks you a question in a language you don’t speak, having it repeated to you louder or more slowly won’t make you understand it all of a sudden. Instead, the question has to be communicated differently.
The same is true of horses.
As Dr Nagy says, “usually there is a two second window for us to respond to any behaviour of the horse in order to be able to modify it successfully.
"If there is a longer gap between the behaviour of the horse and our reaction to it, the chances are high that the horse will not make the connection in his mind between his behaviour and our reaction.
"Therefore, timing is crucial in the training of the horse. Also consider, if we let the horse get along with an unwanted behaviour more than twice, it is generally acknowledged that it can be considered already as a habit, which is much more difficult and takes longer time and a bigger effort to change than teaching the correct response in the first place.”
This, incidentally, is why young or difficult horses and inexperienced riders can make a risky combination. Two or three bucks or stops at a fence that go without correction can quickly turn into a habit which is difficult to fix.
So, the first rules are to respond quickly, and not to let your horse make a habit of a behaviour that you don’t want.
“We aim for invisible communication with the horse” Dr Nagy continues, “but during the teaching phase, the intensity of an aid can vary according to the need of the horse.”
But she is quick to add that horse owners shouldn’t misunderstand this comment. “This doesn’t mean that it is considered ok to - for example - use whip aids all the time because the horse is neglecting to respond to the leg aid.
"On the contrary, we should train and condition our horse to respond even to our subtle thought of wanting to trot or canter for example, or the slightest of aid given by the leg.
"To sensitise the horse for the leg aid other reinforcers (such as voice, whip, or sometimes even the usage of treats) could be acceptable in the beginning of the training period. But these secondary aids should be eliminated with time as training progresses.”
This is a concept that most riders will be familiar with.
When you’re first teaching your horse a flying change, for example, you might need to use a seat aid, then a stronger leg aid, possibly backed up by a whip or voice command. When the horse understands, you can refine it so that you use only a slight whisper of an aid.
How does this translate to better understanding?
Dr Nagy says “in order to help the horse to understand us better, and have a desired behaviour happening more frequently, first we need to improve our communication with the horse.
"We need to aim to give clear and consistent aids. Alongside being clear and specific with our aids, we need to know with what intensity we should give the aids and timing is also crucial.”
Again, this is not an unfamiliar concept and anyone who has taken riding lessons will have been told this at some point!
But, Dr Nagy also mentions that “aids are not just the primary aids given by our body, legs and hands. Or even secondary aids such as voice and whip. We also give signals with our mind, subconscious emotions, feelings and so on.
"Sometimes our mixed signals arise from subtle, deep rooted subconscious thoughts or worries which may contradict what we are actually trying to ask with our body and other aids from our horse.”
This doesn’t sound so far-fetched when you consider that if you’re particularly nervous of a specific jump, for instance, your horse is much more likely to stop, overjump, or spook at it.
Of course, this might be because you change your primary aids and tighten your hand or take your leg off. But it might also be due to the non-physical aids.
How do you give more consistent aids?
This is all well and good, but how do you give more consistent aids? Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution to make you a better horseman/horsewoman or rider. As with everything, it takes time and experience.
The best thing you can do is to work alongside someone experienced and knowledgeable.
They will have a good idea of when and where to apply the aids, and at what intensity. What you can do is ensure that you work on creating or eliminating a behaviour one step at a time, not by “drilling” or asking too much at once.
It’s also important to go at the horse’s pace. They don’t all have the same ability, and your horse may genuinely not understand something because he or she isn’t at the correct stage of their education and development as yet.
In our final piece with Dr Nagy, we’ll look at the different methods for motivating a horse, and the scenarios in which they can be applied.
Original text and images by FEI