Training ~ Exaggeration ("Printer Friendly" version of this page)
The ultimate goal of teaching your horse to comply with a command should be so subtle that no one can see you do it. The process of reaching this goal may involve using some out of the ordinary techniques which are obvious to the horse. If you have ever watched world class cutting, reining or upper level dressage horses and you see these people moving in unison with their horses, you know what I mean. These people didn't just get on their horse one day and decide "today we're going to move off light pressure from my seat!".
We don't see this as something that only these "upper level" riders should be doing with their horses. It's something that we should all strive for -- I personally think it's your responsibility as a horse owner to be as light and subtle with your cues as possible. And the best part is that this is something that you can teach your horse. Heck, I learned how to do this and I'm sure not an upper level dressage rider.
This concept is something that we call exaggeration of a cue. Making the cue so big that it's like a neon sign telling the horse "THIS IS WHAT I WOULD LIKE YOU TO DO!". We use a combination of multiple cues and exaggeration of some key cues to help the horse understand what we are asking for. As with everything that we work on, it's extremely important to remember to reward the horse when using these techniques. Appropriately timed releases and rewards will move you faster through your training program than just about anything else that you can do.
In the back of your mind, remember that you are using BIG cues to teach little cues down the road. You will refine the cue and rewarding the horse for appropriate behavior in order to make that big cue into a little one. Big cues are not pounding on the horse or kicking and pulling. Big cues are patient, consistent and understandable to the horse -- that's what's important about this concept.
Riding Form vs. Training Form
Some of the ways that we use different cues for teaching go totally against the way that many of you have been taught to ride. Approach this with an open mind. Realize that you're doing some of these things for the good of the horse in a teaching mode and you'll work on good form later once you have the horse working with you.
For example, most riding instructors will tell you to keep your hands at or near the wither of the horse while riding. That's traditional riding form. But, it's extremely difficult to teach a horse how to follow a feel, perform a single rein stop, balanced turns, etc. if you use this form for teaching. When training, there is an area which projects out in front of your body that we call the training zone. If you think in terms of a circle, this is the 90 degree space between your legs which is directly in front of your body.
Moving your hands anywhere behind this area will cause your center of gravity to become off balance and send the wrong message to the horse. And keeping your hands too close to the wither while asking for the single rein stop will bend the horse's head up and the nose out, which are both things you want to avoid. Utilizing the entire zone will enable you to work with the horse.
Exaggerating a Cue
Exaggeration is not lying to your horse. It's sending a message that is so obvious the horse can't possibly misunderstand what you are asking. You can find a way to exaggerate just about any cue that you use for training. This is where your creativity comes into play. It's important not to confuse the horse when asking for an exaggeration of a cue. Think about what you want the horse to do and how you think you're going to end up there.
In the picture to the right, I stopped riding and the horse quit moving. You can see that my back is rounded and I am sitting deep into my pockets. Most horses won't do this right from the start so you have to give them a cue that they understand. Work towards this.
In this picture to the left, I am exaggerating the cue of sitting deep into my pockets by leaning back a bit and pushing my feet out in front of me. This is called a "chair seat" and it's actually very poor riding form, but it's extremely effective for teaching. I'll go back to better form once I have refined the stop and the horse will stop when I quit riding.
I give the horse an opportunity to stop off of my seat and if she won't, I'll use a bit of rein (another cue). I like to use a slight "pop" on a single rein at first to get the horse's attention. Avoid pulling on both reins right from the start and you'll have one less bad habit to fix later.
Another example is using exaggeration of a cue for backing up. Here, I'm asking the horse to back up by bringing my seat on (backwards) and using a bit of rein to get the horse thinking backwards. You'll notice that I'm asking for flexion at the poll from this horse which is way past the vertical. This is also very poor posture, but I am asking the horse to exaggerate the posture for backing and I'll release when I get correct posture. This makes it seem easy for the horse to comprehend what I want. Again, you don't want your horse to do this when he's "finished" but it sure makes training easier if you watch for posture and release at the appropriate time.
You may use more than one cue to reach a goal. A good example is asking the horse to back up. Ideally the horse should back up off the pressure in your seat. Very few horses are going to figure this out the first time you ask with backward pressure off your seat. You'll be much more successful if you use multiple cues and then remove individual cues when you progress to a point where the horse understands what you are asking. This is refinement. Eventually, you'll remove all of the cues except for the first one -- asking the horse to move backwards off the pressure from your seat.
There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and dont attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you dont feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, dont do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer. Stay on the "high side of trouble".
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