Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tap, Tap, Tap.....Hello?

Most of what I'm working on right now is forward.  A girl at my barn hopped on the pony yesterday and had the same challenge getting her forward.  It was a tiny bit satisfying for me ego to see that even a very competent rider had a hard time getting her forward.  Of course, in the next minute, I realized this also means that since I've been the only one riding her for the last few weeks that I'm the one that broke the gas pedal.  I'm of two minds about this:  the brave, rider in me knows that forward is the way to go and the panic side of me likes that if given an option, the pony's natural inclination is to slow down or stop.  The wonderful thing that came out of this, is that the girl who rode her for a few minutes yesterday, volunteered to help get her forward by riding her once a week in a jump saddle and just showing her how to gallop.  She said if the pony shows any interest, she might also jump her if I want.  I think it will be really good for Tess to have a once a week ride where her rider is showing her that forward can be fun.

But my title is about something else I've been pondering.  Tap, tap, tapping for forward.  There seem to be two schools of thought on instilling forward.  One is that you motivate the horse by asking first with the seat, then the legs, then the whip and that you then increase these aids consistently until the horse moves forward at which point you release.  The other is that you still start with seat and then legs and then whip, but after politely asking once with the whip you don't mess around.  You don't gently increase the pressure, you say "Pony, I've asked you three times and now it's time for you to take me seriously."  This usually results in either a jump in forward motion or a protest in the form of a kick or a buck followed by a jump in forward motion.  I can see why you would use both but I'm unclear on when each is appropriate and which is the most fair to the horse.

I know that with dogs and children (both of which I've actually had success with) you do NOT want to waste a bunch of time slowly increasing pressure.  Because they will then wait five, ten, fifteen times after you've said it, knowing that it's not going to get super uncomfortable until you've reached a boiling point.  And by that time, you've grown frustrated at asking them over and over and are likely to be unfair and over the top when you reach your increased pressure point.I know that with my child, once I feel she understands the rules (no four letter words) we move to the one warning phase.  If the behavior keeps coming back and I've warned her once and she continues to cuss, then I eliminate the warning phase.  This is always preceded by a conversation that "You know cussing isn't allowed, so if you choose to cuss you will have an immediate time out."  For reference, my little potty mouth is five.  So now, if a cuss word comes out of her mouth she gets a time out.  The time out is meted out fairly and without dramatics.  I'm not angry, I'm just matter of fact.  I usually say "Oh, I'm sorry you chose to say that.  You need to take a time out."  She wails and cries and apologizes and then gets angry and then gets sad and then comes around.  After a few of these, she has given up cussing.  It's not worth the hassle for her.

So, how does this relate to forward and how we ask?  Well, I'm not sure.  How do you know when your horse understands that the movement of your seat or your legs means forward?  After ten rides, twenty rides?  After six months?  A year?  When do you decide (or when do you know) that your horse understands what you're asking them?  I don't think horses are ever 'out to get us' or anything like that, but I can understand that my pony is a smart cookie and that she knows she can slow down and I'll just keep bump, bump bumping with my legs for two circles and then I''ll tap mildly and she'll swish her tail and it will be at least another three circles before I get up the gumption to smack her.  And then after I smack her, she knows that in four strides she can slow down and we'll start the process all over again.  Because for a horse, this 'laziness' is self preservation.  Why expend energy if you don't have to?

Anyways, those are my rambling, long thoughts on this process.  Now off to the barn to see what I can convince the pony to do today!


  1. Maybe she thinks you don't want to move forward - if you're nervous about it you may well be giving her inconsistent signals - "forward", "no, not forward", "forward" - does this make any sense?

    You need to be committed in your own mind to forward, then ask, as best you can - don't agonize over it - then Immediately (underline, capitalize, etc.) go to a secondary cue - crop, etc. - if your timing is quick you won't have to be big about it - the delay should be almost nothing between your ask and the secondary cue. She's started under saddle and knows what a go forward cue is. If you wait, all you're doing is irritating her. Don't futz around - it's annoying to the horse and doesn't clearly communicate what you want - you're saying NOW!. But you don't necessarily have to use a lot of force either.

    Hope that makes some sense.

  2. Kate-This makes perfect sense! I actually think that I'm a big part of the problem because though I'm thinking 'we should go forward' I'm pretty sure my body is screaming "We'll die if we go forward! Too fast!!" I'm going to work on staying loose in my stirrups and asking quietly without nagging. I'll just pretend she's my five year old. :)

  3. I think the key is consistency with however you choose to ask. If every time you ask nicely (a good squeeze), and she doesn't listen, you ask like you mean it (so a good smack with the whip) she will learn the pattern and probably respond accordingly. I think "tap tap tap" is annoying to them unless you're asking for them to move the haunches over or something.

    Jane Savoie has a good article about this,

  4. I know this is a really old post--I wondered if you felt you'd made progress since writing this entry. It's really important for me to always start with the cue I wish the horse would respond to. This can be really tough to do, since this cue is almost always completely ignored in the beginning. But it is essential!

    I follow the 1-2-3 line of thought. 1 is the soft, subtle cue you wish they would canter off at, in a perfect world--just a twitch of the calf (or whatever you use). 2 is the warning cue, and should be a good step up from your first--a "good squeeze" with your calves, a boot in the gut, etc. It is a warning and shouldn't be ignored. If it is, then... 3 is "this is absolutely happening NOW." You do whatever it is you need to do to make it happen. Over/under the reins if you're riding in split reins, whip applied if you're carrying a dressage whip, preferably from the behind so you're not just slapping the shoulder which can be the opposite cue from "forward". Horse has to understand this is the BOTTOM LINE and they will gain nothing from ignoring it. It's also important you not feel guilty. The horse CHOSE this. You gave her two opportunities already to respond.

    Horses are really just like 5 year old kids. Smart enough to know what you expect of them, and smart enough to choose not to listen. Unfortunately if they choose to ignore the polite and respectful cue, they have to live with the consequences. But the respectful soft cue always has to be an option.