The Self-Propelling Horse
In the first instalment of this blog, I promised we would look at how to motivate a horse that has become switched off to the aids, to bring an end to all that unpleasant nagging.
I have taught this approach to numerous riders and found that even horses who have been ridden with almost constant leg use by the rider can quickly transform into forward-going horses if the techniques are applied consistently. I particularly remember one 25 year old gelding who had been ridden by the same rider since he had been started at age 3, and in that time she had always kicked with every stride. Her instructor’s favourite encouragement had been “legs, legs! Use your legs!” and she had taken this advice to heart. He took the change in approach completely in his stride, although his rider was somewhat astonished, particularly as the whole process only took a few minutes.
I’m sure you can picture the kind of scenario – the horse who does move his body around a school, but with the minimum of effort and a lot of kicking and shoving from the rider. The horse often looks switched off and not particularly keen. The rider often looks flustered and frustrated, and often dislikes the amount of force she feels she is having to use.
There are situations in which it is not appropriate to use our approach. These include:
- The genuinely nappy horse that is so frightened they are absolutely refusing to move. A “giddy-up” rope may well still work, but the approach is different.
- A horse that isn’t willingly going forward because there is some pain or discomfort involved. Backs, teeth, saddles and feet all have to be sorted out if there is any suspicion that the horse is uncomfortable.
- A horse that is unwell in some way, or generally seems depressed.
- A horse that is tentative because they are nervous – remember not all nervous horses rush.
- A nervous horse that is likely to react very strongly to sudden movements from the rider. It is unusual for such horses to be unresponsive to the leg, however.
- A school that is too deep for the horse to work freely in. Some schools are so tiring to even walk in that it could sap the energy of even the fittest, most enthusiastic horse.
- A horse that is going slowly because the rider is worried about going faster. This approach does require a certain amount of oomph and the rider who is frightened of sparking up the horse’s energy may not find it easy to commit fully to this approach. For the more cautious rider, this exercise could be done on long-lines first (with no one on board), or by another rider.
- A very novice rider who might be unbalanced by sudden movement from the horse.
For the Horse: A willingly forward, self-propelling horse who only requires a most minimal leg aid to initiate movement, and who keeps moving, without reminders, until another aid – to move up or down a pace – is given.
For the Rider: A quiet, respectful rider who can consciously control the use of their leg, who stays out of the horse’s way, doesn’t nag, and avoids conflicting or confusing signals.
Step One: Deciding what you want
Decide what an appropriate leg aid will be. I like to use a very light tap, in towards the horse, that barely touches the sides, and where it’s almost the gush of air as the leg moves away that the horse responds to. Because this is so light I think it’s appropriate to pair this with a kiss noise if there is any possibility of ambiguity. For instance, when I first get on, there’s the possibility that my leg might brush the horse’s side while I’m fiddling with the girths, and if the horse thought this meant “canter”, life would be a little inconvenient (and possibly somewhat short). So, we make sure to put in place an arrangement whereby the horse is aware that without us holding the reins up off his neck, all signals should be ignored- until we pick up the reins he is on holiday. If necessary I will back up my ‘go’ signal with a little kissing noise, so the horse knows he can safely ignore any stray signals at this point. The same approach works well when long-lining – as you’re gathering up the lines at the beginning they are likely to touch the horse, and it’s unfair to reprimand a horse for responding to these signals, but if they know to wait for a paired cue (lifting the rein/ kissing) it makes life easier for all concerned.
I would suggest you choose the lightest aid you yourself can notice. There’s no point doing this exercise if you’re going to use an audible thump to signal the horse!
It is also vital to decide how fast you want the horse to go. Sometimes we have come across people whose response to our question, ‘Is this the speed you want?’ is always ‘No- he should go faster’, regardless of how much effort the horse is making.
Step Two: Play the “Now- Then” game
You really need a friend watching you for this, preferably armed with a video camera! Every time you use your leg, say “now”. Your friend carefully watches your leg, and notices if there are any kicks slipping past your awareness. Then she can say “then!” every time she sees you use your leg which you didn’t notice. It’s likely that she might see more kicks than you are aware of making, and it’s also quite common for there to be a pattern of leg use like this: KICK, kick, kick, kick, KICK, kick, kick, kick, etc, with the rider only being aware of the big kicks. The smaller ones count, too, though. Imagine someone using their legs against your ribs in the same manner. The small nudges might not actually be painful, but they will probably be irritating enough that you would want to tune them out, or have them stop. It doesn’t make sense to have the horse defensively tune out a signal that you want them to attend to!
Step Three: Make the change
Stop kicking. It’s as simple as that. As soon as you are aware of each and every time you use your leg, and your friend agrees, stop using them. You can even turn your lower legs slightly away from the horse to make sure you’re not accidentally brushing them against the horse. Make sure you’re not shoving with your pelvis instead, but equally make sure you don’t seize your body up in such a way that your horse could think you want them to stop. Do not use your legs to steer, and direct the horse through simple, open reins (make sure your hands don’t pull back at all).
One of three things is likely to happen:
- The horse grinds to a halt. Not surprising if the horse is used to continuous kicking. It’s as if they feel that each leg aid means “move a step”, and if there are no more leg aids, the horse thinks they’re meant to stop moving.
- The horse keeps moving exactly the same as before. This can be surprising! The horse isn’t exactly motoring on, but doesn’t appear to notice the leg “aid” has stopped. This seems good evidence that the leg meant next to nothing to the horse, and that he has learnt to tune it out.
- The horse moves a little freer and faster than before. This doesn’t happen that often, but occurs mostly when the legs have been used in a forceful squeezing pressure, blocking the necessary motion of the rider along with the horse- and the horse being an “into-pressure” animal has actually been pushing back into the legs and slowing down as a result.
Now for the fun part. Think of this as a game, and that you’re explaining the rules to the horse by being extremely clear and consistent. The horse will get it even if you make the odd mistake, but needs you to be as accurate as possible.
When I teach this in a clinic or as a demo, I have to pause and explain the rules, so the horse has usually been halted, and might even be resting a leg. So I will outline the steps from being fully halted.
It’s best to use a “giddy-up” rope (or wip-wop). These are easily made at home or are available from the IH office, and the key thing is that they don’t inflict pain at all. I usually demonstrate this by whacking myself really hard around the shoulders with one (I promise I’m not into that sort of thing). A lot of riders use it on their own shoulders, rather than on the horse. Of course, if you’re wearing a rustly jacket, this makes a great noise, but this generally isn’t necessary. If you choose to use a whip, possibly with a handkerchief or plastic bag on it (the nuclear option, be careful!), hold it in the upright position so when waved it moves in front of your face, and is more likely to hurt you than the horse if you have a momentary loss of co-ordination (mind his ears and your nose- practise off-horse if you are struggling with this. Bear in mind the horse may well lift his head in response to the stimulus). The main thing is that you put real energy into it, as explained below.
Begin and end each ride with the rein completely loose, resting on his neck with your hand holding the buckle. So your very first move is to lift up the rein and hold it in the usual fashion. That’s your hand brake, so taking that off should be a signal that something is about to happen. Then, using the leg aid that you decided was suitable, give the horse one signal, paired if you like with a kiss noise. If they were “switched off”, it’s reasonable that they don’t spring into life, although you should expect some signs of awakening. If they don’t move off immediately, give another signal of exactly the same intensity (this is very important, you are never going to be increasing the amount of this pressure), and if they don’t respond to that, it’s time to hold the front of the saddle and reins (loosely so he can move ahead freely) with one hand, and use the giddy-up with the other. This needs to be done with loads of energy, as the idea is to startle the horse. They should preferably leap forwards in surprise with a sort of “cor blimey” look in their eyes, in a “I didn’t expect that!” sort of way. (NB if you are a little unsure of how your horse might react, bearing in mind you want surprise not total freak-out, you could start more gently with the giddy-up, but the important thing to remember is that you want a strong reaction from the horse to break the pattern of general lassitude). You might also want to make a loud kiss or “pssch” sound. Blowing raspberries can also be surprisingly effective! Do whatever it takes, as long as you’re not banging your legs against the horse’s sides, or using a stick to hit the horse.
Allow the horse to move forward freely for several strides. Quietly ask the horse back to a walk (perhaps by putting their nose into the fence) if they have been trotting or cantering in response to the giddy-up, and be very careful not to use the legs. The rules here are that the horse has to keep moving their legs, in walk, but it doesn’t matter – at this stage – how fast they do so. Don’t worry, you won’t have to crawl around for ever, but it’s very important that the horse gets the first basic concept which is “stay in walk until asked otherwise”. However slowly they go, make sure you don’t remind them to keep moving. What you are asking the horse to do is to be more involved with being ridden, and to take some responsibility for their part of the deal. Your job is to let them know when they have made a mistake, not to remind them that they are about to go wrong. I often think of this bit like the old-fashioned scenario in which the wife would kiss the husband good-bye in the mornings and hand him his briefcase. As long as the wife did this, the husband never had to remember or worry about the briefcase. If she wanted him to take that responsibility for himself, she would only have to let him forget once, and for him to go to an important meeting without his essential notes, for him to never forget again. Incidentally, memory experts suggest that relying on others to remember important details like this contributes to memory loss in people – usually men- of a certain age….
So, the rider’s job is to concentrate on not kicking the horse and just to wait until the horse actually stops. As soon as all four feet have come to a complete stop, she can go crazy again with the Giddy-up. Again, the horse should be startled and move strongly forward around the school, and then quietly asked back to a walk. It’s not that you want the horse to trot or canter particularly, it’s that you want them to be adrenalised enough to do so. The Giddy-up isn’t a signal in itself, it’s a consequence delivered to the horse for either not responding to a signal, or forgetting that one still applies. It must not hurt the horse, but must be unsettling enough that the horse doesn’t want you to do it again, and is motivated to find out how to make sure you don’t.
The horse usually tries this out 2-3 times to be sure of the cause and effect, and may also need to be sure that it applies on the other rein, too. Still, done well, you may only need to reach for the Giddy-Up a handful of times to overcome years of constant kicking.
Another reason to make sure you don’t jump in with the Giddy-Up in a reminding fashion, when you feel the horse is about to stop, is that you know the horse has well and truly grasped the concept when they are walking along in the absence of kicking, slow down as if they are about to stop, and then think better of it and speed up again. That’s a moment when you could hop off or stroke him to congratulate him for his effort! If you had already jumped in at this point you would have missed this, and are also confusing the issue and going back to taking over responsibility for keeping the horse moving.
Once the horse has got the idea in walk, the next step is to check it out in trot. The same deal applies – the horse can be trotting slowly, but must be doing an identifiable two-time movement. The rider takes sitting trot or a sort of middling rising trot – not thrusting strongly with the pelvis to indicate a particular tempo and speed, but not doing such a minor rise the horse could be forgiven for thinking he’s being asked to slow down. If the horse actually walks, the rider delivers the negative consequence with the Giddy Up again.
We don’t usually go through the same process for canter. Although breaking out of the canter is not ideal, sometimes the horse does it because they’ve become too unbalanced to continue. I think using the Giddy-Up in this situation would be unfair, and could result in the horse panicking. Many riders are not brilliantly balanced and aligned in the canter, either (the same is true of trot and walk but imbalance is harder for a horse to deal with in canter). What I tend to do if I think the horse has “bailed out” and could’ve maintained the canter is to stop the horse when they lose the canter, rein back to before where they broke, and go straight back into the canter. This is a little like we’re rewinding the video tape and recording what we wanted to happen over the top of what actually did. It’s hard enough work for the horse to want to avoid doing it, but doesn’t involve flying around the school in an even more unbalanced canter than the horse dropped out of. Plus the rein-back to canter move often helps with the quality of the canter, anyway. Obviously, your rein-back has to be in place, but anyone who has ever seen Monty or Kelly, or been on a riding clinic with us, would already know how important that is, and have been working on it!
Usually, at this point, the horse has pretty much got the idea, and although the emphasis hasn’t been on maintaining a certain speed, the horse is usually more forward going in the walk and trot. Another way to encourage optimal forwardness is to use that old-fashioned expedient of lots of transitions one after the other. Of course, the emphasis is on the horse responding immediately to the lightest request. Since the horse hasn’t been standing around whilst explanations have been discussed, it is perfectly reasonable to expect the horse to be on alert to any signals, and to respond to one request and not need the back up of a second. If the horse doesn’t respond immediately the Giddy-Up is used. It’s rare to have a horse who responds straight away to a succession of quick transitions without also moving nicely forwards.
The horse that has been habitually sluggish and uninspired needs to learn a new habit of moving forwards in a self-sustaining way. It makes sense to keep the sessions short to start with, and to put in plenty of walk and halt so the horse doesn’t feel that they are in a perpetual motion that might never stop! If there are other things that the horse enjoys, like jumping or trotting poles, incorporate those, too.
Happy Riding! Here are a couple of things to be aware of: Occasionally the horse may have to stop to pee, and it would be a bit unfair to reach for the Giddy-Up at this point. What I’ve found is that horses quickly learn to make it very clear that they are stopping for this reason- they stop very definitely and immediately go into peeing position, and it often seems to resolve that annoying “is he stopping to pee or just stopping” question.
You may also find initially that when you go to pick up or adjust your rein, the horse responds with some tension. A simple reassuring stroke usually makes it clear to him that there’s no need to be worried.
It may also be the case that you need to be a bit clearer with your downwards request, as the horse may be very careful not to make the mistake of stopping when he’s not meant to. Some people who have horses that aren’t forward going find that they don’t really have a downwards aid – they’ve only ever had to stop kicking for the horse to halt! I would suggest a definite closing or lifting of the hand on the rein as part of the aid, just so it’s very clear to the horse. Make sure there’s no backward pull, however. There’s plenty to be said about the bit and the rein aids and how the horse responds to them, but at this stage we’re just looking at being clear, and having the horse understand the principle of being responsible for maintaining their own forward movement until they are asked for something else.
Finally, I should mention that years ago I decided never to write an instruction manual, because every second sentence would start, ‘but if…’. Every horse is an individual and this article will probably not suit everyone. If you want help with this or any other issue, we’d be delighted to help out in person, through a riding clinic, callout, or tailored tuition.