In the section of my book this stems from, I describe how I get the horse to yield off one leg easily, but in this article I’d like to talk about getting a horse to move forward off of both legs because that’s the most common problem I see when I teach clinics. Some horses are lazy by nature, but some are simply trained to be dead to the leg. Most of the time, riders assume the former and may discover it’s actually the latter.
The first thing is to make sure that the rider starts with a completely quiet leg in order to make sure that the horse will recognize the squeeze as a cue and not a perpetual part of life. I tell my students to think of it this way: if you’re constantly saying something to the horse, how is the he supposed to recognize that one time, the aid means something? It’s like walking into a room and wanting to say something; if the room is noisy with people jabbering, you’ll have to shout to be heard, but if the room is silent, a whisper will be heard. If the rider is constantly talking to the horse with little nudges of the leg, the horse will become immune to leg pressure and a lot of leg will be needed to get a response, but if the leg is always dead quiet, a very small aid will be heard.
Keeping the leg still is often extremely difficult for riders who are in the habit of constantly moving it. Sometimes this is because they feel they need to keep squeezing in order to keep the horse going, and sometimes it’s out of sheer habit and they don’t even know they’re doing it. It’s unfair to the horse if the rider goes nag, nag, nag, and then punishes him for not responding when she when she purposely squeezes. He may well not be able to differentiate the nag from the aid.
Very often, simply mastering the quiet leg will allow the horse to become sensitive to the light squeeze. My rule of the aids must always be positive, never negative is imperative; the leg must always say go forward, it can never say don’t slow down.
The rapidity of increased sensitivity is quite amazing with this type of horse. Sometimes when I ask a rider what I can help her with, she sighs in resignation and says he’s so lazy, completely dead to the leg, and when she succeeds in keeping her leg quiet, the horse is miraculously forward. His dullness has come from a progression: the rider mindlessly nags so the horse becomes dull; then because the horse is dull, the rider nags more, so the horse becomes more dull, so the rider nags more, and so on. If the rider simply eliminates the nagging, she gives the horse a chance to be responsive.
In order to ensure that the rider starts out with a quiet room and to make her aware of what a quiet leg feels like, I begin by asking her to keep her legs all the way away from the horse’s sides. She’s only ever to put them on him when she’s asking him to go forward. Even a sensitive horse who’s been made dull by continual squeezing will most likely slow down when the leg disappears because he thinks he’s only supposed to keep going if the leg tells him to, but a horse who’s been made dull by training will normally respond to a single gentle squeeze. If they don’t, the method I use is the following:
I call it whisper/shout. I normally start with walk/trot transitions because they offer the clearest response for both the rider and the horse. We first make sure the room is quiet. If the horse’s walk slows down when the leg comes off, it’s ok as long as he keeps walking. If he tries to stop, he gets a fwack with the whip, but under no circumstance is the rider to apply the leg. Once we make sure the room is quiet, the rider asks for the trot with the aid she ideally wants him to respond to: she whispers with a light squeeze. If he doesn’t respond, she shouts: she gives him a serious kick or a crack with the whip. There’s no talking or asking with a medium aid. By going immediately to the shout, the rider teaches the horse that he better listen to the whisper.
Some details of this technique are critical to ensure that it’s both effective and fair. First of all, the horse must be given time to respond to the small aid. Our aim, of course, is to teach him to listen to the whisper, and if there’s no time between the whisper and the shout, he won’t understand that the shout is a correction for not listening to the whisper. The pattern is: 1) make sure the leg is quiet 2) ask with a gentle leg 3) wait to see if he responds 4) if he doesn’t, get after him 5) when he responds, reward him.
Another common problem is that the rider will mistake a quick aid for a soft one; they’ll think asking quickly equals asking softly. The opposite is actually true. If the aid disappears immediately after it’s used, the horse may assume that it was a mistake and thus ignore it. My rule is one second and one second: one second to make the request, and one second to wait for him to respond. When I say one second, I stress to the rider that one second is really a long time; their aid needs to stay on for the time it takes to say one-one-thousandand come off again for the same amount of time before correcting him.
A third mistake that’s commonly made is rewarding the horse when he stops; the rider will fwack the horse with the whip, the horse will gallop forward, the rider will bring him back to walk and then reward him. In other words, she’s rewarding him for stopping. She should pat the horse when he’s going, make it crystal clear to him that he’s being rewarded for going forward.
The final mistake I want to talk about is judging how much is enough. I tell the rider that until the horse is taking her, until she has to ask him to come back, it’s not enough. A little canter step or a momentary surge forward isn’t accepted. If it is, it nullifies the impact of the lesson we’re trying to teach. I don’t care if she has to fwack him thirty-seven times or bite his ear to get him to gallop forward, unless he’s really going forward of his own accord, our correction was just a pointless punishment. Many riders, most of whom are very kind-hearted, feel it’s mean to correct their horse so vehemently when he responds a little bit to the milder correction. I ask them to think of it this way: if they accept the mediocre response, they’ll likely have to make the same correction 50% of the time for the horse’s entire life, but if they insist on absolute forwardness and have to use extreme measures to get it, they’ll avoid having to constantly repeat the correction. It’s very rare for any horse to not learn the lesson in three or four times when the method is done correctly. They’ll most likely still need to be reminded occasionally that forward is a requirement, but they get the relief of not being hounded half of the time.
When during a session, I ask a rider how a transition was and they answer better, my response is better isn’t good enough. Like I explain in my article on exaggeration, insisting on an extreme version of what your trying to accomplish is very important to make progress more rapid, and in this instance, it’s imperative. A horse will not learn to go forward of his own accord if the rider uses half measures, if the horse learns to always asks is this enough. He needs to be told that’s too much.
Our goal of course, is to make him understand that he’s to maintain the same tempo until the rider tells him to change it. For instance, he should stay in the slow trot until the rider tells him otherwise; he should stay in the big trot until she tells him to collect; he should maintain the pirouette canter until she tells him to push out. When the horse learns to respond instantly to the aids for the transition, I begin to shift my focus to include this requirement. To teach the horse that he’s not to change tempo unless the rider tells him to, however, he gets no whisper. The correction comes immediately. The aid is just as swift but not as profound. He’ll get a quick whap with the whip or boot with the leg, but an aid that says, hey, you must march, not one that says go, damn it. Also, when the rider is telling him that he must maintain the tempo, a brief breaking into trot is acceptable. It’s a smaller correction so his reaction must be oops, sorry, not holy crap, I really should have listened to the small aid.