I was working with my horse on a Steve Halfpenny clinic and he was starting to respond nicely to what I was asking, but it was a little slow. In fact, it was very slow. If I had written my requests down and posted them second class, they would probably have arrived at about the same time. I commented on this to Steve and he simply observed “If you backed it up every time, he’d respond a lot quicker.” As often happens around horses, Steve was absolutely right – I had been asking and then I would swing my rope and once in a while I would get frustrated enough that I might escalate things a little further and maybe let the tail of the rope touch my horse’s quarters and he would move on but then I would be ineffectual again and he would figure out that he really didn’t have to.
By being ineffective I was being unfair to myself and to my horse. I was being inconsistent, sometimes asking quietly where he could ignore me, sometimes being more firm so that he couldn’t, but every time I was ineffective, I pushed the boundary of effectiveness a little further.
So what does it take to be effective? When you ask your horse to make a change, they make a change. It may not be exactly what you asked for, but something happens. Lets take a concrete example:
I am leading my horse and I ask them to move a little faster, so I pick up my pace and walk more energetically. My horse drags a little behind, so I slap the tail of my lead rope against my chaps, creating a noise which is enough to encourage her to catch me up. She doesn’t hurry her feet so I swing the tail of my rope behind me vigorously that she trots forward a couple of steps. The moment she moves faster I stop swinging that rope.
If she hadn’t started moving I would have quickly escalated the amount of energy I put in until she changed something. I would let the end of the rope tap her on the hindquarters if she hadn’t got to moving before that. Once I have asked for something I have made an absolute commitment to find a change.
If I have to escalate things further, then I need to find a bigger change too – if I have to put a lot of energy in to ask my horse to walk faster, then I would aim for them to trot or canter forwards from that.
There are two general guidelines I use for this:
First if my horse is stuck or leaning on my cues ( by which I mean that they are not promptly and willingly following those cues or trying to figure out what I am looking for if we’re working on something new ) then to be properly effective, I need my secondary cue ( the swinging rope, noise, increase in energy, bump with my leg or on the rein ) to be sufficient that my horse moves their feet. If in doubt I would much prefer to do a little too much with that cue than not enough. Ideally I want my horse to think about what just happened and to look for an easier way to get along with me. As soon as they start searching, we’re going in the right direction.
Secondly I back up my initial cue quite quickly. The time I have heard suggested is 1 – 1.5 seconds between initial and secondary cue. That is time to judge whether anything has changed, but not long enough for your horse to have a snooze while they’re waiting to find out whether or not you mean it.
When I talk about having an absolute commitment to making a change I mean that if I ask my horse for something, I really mean it- I will go to whatever lengths it takes to have them change if they ignore what I am asking for. For me, the really interesting part is this: Since I learned to make that commitment, I have consistently found my horses responded to smaller cues.