THE VALUE OF CUES

One of the services provided at Foxvangen Farm are general horsemanship classes. These classes are tailored to the specific students needs and we work both with the owner and their horse, as well as the student with one of our horses.

What we have found at the root of most problems when it comes to terms of ground handling on a horse is a general lack of communication between horse and human. The fact the horse really does not know what is being asked of it, not so much that it refuses to do what is asked of it.

When a student arrives the first thing we do is have the student turn his/her horse loose in the round pen. After the horse has had time for a good roll, shake and loosening up we ask the student to go put a halter on that horse.

This very basic process tells a big story as to where that student needs to begin with his/her training. This fundamental act also tells me where that horse is in it's relationship to it's human.

I watch to see if the person approaches the horse or if he has the horse approach him. If he approaches the horse what does the horse do? Does it walk away a few steps then stop and turn? Does it trot off to the farthest side of the pen and keep moving farther away as the human approaches?

Does it stand yet hold it's head up or take it away as the halter approaches it's head? Does the student follow after the horse when it moves off? Does the student try to catch the head when it is not freely given?

The art of haltering a horse sets the tune for everything else you will do when the horse is under your control. Oddly enough, to get the best responses and results of training for proper haltering, we throw away the halter and begin learning communication.

Communication is impossible to conduct between horse and human without cues. Consistent cues reap the best rewards when they are used in the proper sequences and at the appropriate time.

Whether a person is aware of it or not you are constantly talking to your horse with body language long before you give a verbal cue or command. The trouble begins when those cues become unfocused, inconsistent and /or sloppy. How is the horse to understand you when you keep changing the rules?

What we like to see is the horse turned loose in the round pen. After it has had it's time to roll and stretch etc we want the student to enter the round pen and stand a few feet inside the gate.

As soon as the person enters the pen we want that horse to focus on him Head up off the ground , face to the person, body relaxed, squared up. As if the horse is saying, " well hello, you have entered my space, what can I do for you?" There should be no nervous shuffling, no resentful moving off, no snorting or head shaking. Just a simple relaxed attention position without any body tension.

At that point we want our students to cue the horse to come to them. The cue used is not important but we want them to give both a verbal command and a body language command. Personally I smooch to my horses when I mean " pay attention", and I take a half step back to say "come to me". But the cue used is not important so long as it is a logical cue that the horse can understand and that the cue is appropriate for the desired result.

For instance, you would not jump up and down and wave your arms to call a horse to you. Instead your body needs to be quiet and relatively still and relaxed. This is a welcoming gesture to the horse and invites it to come to you.

When the horse approaches we want to see the head drop slightly to a submissive position and we want the horse to be relaxed. The student then rewards the behavior with a good rub on the neck and a spoken "well done'… or "good boy".

Horses need to know when they have it right just the same as do humans. By rewarding the horse for the appropriate behavior you are encouraging him to do the same thing the next time you ask. This is reinforcing the good behavior.

Now the horse has come softly up to the person. We watch to see what approach the person has to haltering. Does he just reach up and try to shove the halter up on the horse's nose? ( many people do just that) or does the human grab the head and try to stuff it in the halter ( many also do this) does the human take the halter to the head and chase it when the horse lifts or pulls the head away?

What we like to see is a cue for the horse to drop it's head in preparation to receiving the halter. That is done by a simple cue that is taught in a process of teaching the horse to give it's head to pressure and to relax on request. This process is fundamental and totally invaluable. It relies strongly on respect and significant cues that the horse is easily able to understand and respond to.

So many times we see a person bull through and just grab the horse, cram the halter on it's head and then take up the rope and jerk it. This shows no respect at all and a total lack of cues or communication with the horse. Fortunately most horses are very forgiving and tolerant, however many build up resentment to this sort of handling which can lead to difficulties in other areas as well.

Cues are an aide not only to the horse but also to the human. When you first begin learning to cue for specific responses, it makes a person slow down and think. That brings his focus to the endeavor and affords the opportunity to begin developing dialog with the horse. The more communication and understanding the less misunderstanding and rebellion the horse will display.

No matter what horse guru you are currently impressed with and wishing to learn from you will see that the successful ones all use cues. They do not go into deep detail as a rule as to how, why, or what cues to use, but if you watch them you will see them giving cues all the same. The reason they don't make much comment on the cue is that by now those cues are second nature to them. They no longer need to think about them because they come as natural as breathing. That is the goal.

If a specific cue does not get the response needed, there is nothing in the world wrong with switching to a different cue. The cue itself is not the important thing, what is important is that you find a cue that works and continue to use it in a consistent manner.

With my own horses I have developed a little game. My goal is to get my cues as soft and light as possible. You will be utterly amazed how slight you can cue and still have the horse respond in the manner you seek. Observers may never see that cue, yet the horse picks up on it right away.

This lightness is good for the horse but it is also good for the human in that it transfers to other areas of the relationship. One of my favorite thoughts is that if a horse can feel a fly land on one hair of it's body and know which hair to shake in order to dislodge that fly, then that horse does not NEED any more weight or pressure than that to yield to a cue. You will find that when you work in this manner the cue will suddenly become so nebulous that the horse seems to respond before the cue is even given.

When you achieve that, then you have a truly attentive and active partner with your horse.

Cues whether from the ground or from saddle are a vital part of the communication link between equine and human. Have you ever assessed how you cue or communicate with your horse?

 

 

 
 

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