ABCs Before Essays

One of my pet peeves with most horse training is the way so many drill movements, often with little improvement to show for it. To be sure, this is not a new phenomena – I have seen it throughout my riding life. The best trainers, who truly want to create educated horses in a partnership, have never done that. What I see today is that this approach is becoming the norm, rather than an exception.

My favorite metaphor for this is trying to teach a young child to write essays before they even know how to write the alphabet. In general, we teach children to write by starting with letters, then words, followed by sentences and paragraphs, before expecting anything that can be considered a story or essay. Yet, too often with horses we make some huge assumptions about how they will react to our aids, without building the basics that will lead to the reaction we want.

Take, for example, the rider who tries to get more energy out of their horse. Too frequently the approach is to go round and round the arena, trying to generate that energy by pressing regularly with their legs or heels. Rarely will that yield the desired results, so whips and spurs will eventually be employed. Those may have limited immediate results (although spurs can have the opposite effect on some horses). What is really missing in this equation is what my long time trainer called a “go button”. If the horse really understood the expectation of the leg aid, there would be no issue.

The better approach in this situation is to instill a clear response to the “go button” in the horse. Done right, the lightest of leg aids will create the effect needed. This approach starts with teaching the horse to promptly move off from a voice aid while in hand. Taps from a Dressage whip (light and potentially repeated until the desired response is achieved) can aid the result. From there, the lunge line is employed so the response can be gained from increasing distances. Prompt lively transitions on the lunge line will carry over as increased energy on the circles.

The groundwork is transferred to the saddle utilizing the voice and whip taps that are now understood as back up to the leg. First halt to walk, repeated often but not so frequently as to annoy the horse or cause confusion. Then walk to trot transitions, and finally trot to canter. Once the transitions come from light leg aids, the rider will find that the energy naturally flows out of this effort. The once dull, lazy horse is now attentive and light on the aids.

That is just one example where starting with the most basic building blocks leads to better understanding by the horse of what is expected. The same approach yields better results for all of the basic responses we expect from our horses. My long time trainer has always been fond of saying that everything we ask of the horse boils down to three basic responses – “stop, go, and sideways”. Using this as the ABCs (adding backing up, moving haunches, and moving shoulders) you can easily move to words (e.g., shoulder fore), then sentences (e.g., shoulder-in at collected trot), paragraphs (e.g., haunches-in to shoulder-in to renvers … one of my favorite sequences), and finally to essays (e.g., a full Dressage test).