Refining Rhythm, Improving Responsiveness and Increasing Expectations
Ocala Horse Conference
September 17th, 2009
Horses generally improve as riders get better. Ultimately the horse will always go
to the level of its rider. So, an outstanding horse ridden by a poor rider will ultimately
become a poor horse in terms of performance. A horse with low skills or poor
performance ridden by an outstanding rider will improve to the level of the rider. This
happens because the horse will respond to the skill of the rider, the expectations of the
rider and the responsiveness required by the rider. Therefore, as horsemen, we must
improve our own skills, establish high expectations and responsiveness in order to ride
and maintain high quality horses.
As a rider, we desire to develop our skill and find our rhythm on the horse in
order to always be sitting in balance and rhythm with the horse. We must learn to
understand the movements of the saddle at each gait so that we can feel the leg
movements and therefore influence them. There are a series of exercises that we can do to
learn the feel of the saddle and understand the leg movements. This allows us to get our
seat and hands in rhythm with the movement of the horse. Ultimately, when we feel the
horses' movement well enough, we want to ask the horse to change their rhythm by
increasing or restricting the movement of our hip and/or hands. We want to stay in
balance with the horse and stay out of the way of the horse by sitting straight and slightly
to the outside so that we can free up the legs that we desire to move.
Secondly, the most important aspect of improving the horse is responding to the
horse. The horse learns not really from the pressure that we apply to him, but from the
release of pressure. The release of pressure is the horses' reward and tells them when they
have done the appropriate thing. We have to learn to become incredibly responsive with
our hands, our seat and our legs in order to get a very responsive horse.
Improving responsiveness is the key to increasing the quality of our horses'
movement and maneuvers. To increase responsiveness of the horse, we must master the
concept of pressure and release. Pressure is applied in the form of a cue, encouragement
from the legs, or demands from the legs to initiate a particular maneuver. As soon as the
horse has given or started an appropriate response, the release must be complete and
quick in order to appropriately reward the horse and improve responsiveness. Release of
pressure is probably the most important horsemanship skill that a horseman can learn.
The second key concept in improving responsiveness is consistency. In order for
the horse to learn and improve, the rider must be consistent in applying the cues and
reinforcement required for the maneuver. Consistency will create improvement and
success even if the technique is questionable.
The third aspect of improving responsiveness is the level of demand. With a green
horse, we always ask, encourage, tell, and then demand a response. These represent
various levels of pressure we put on the horse to solicit a specific response. As the horse
learns the appropriate response, we will increase our expectation. At some point in time,
when we get to the high levels of response, we simply ask/cue the horse for the response
and then go to the "demand" level immediately. So, at the high response level of training,
we go from cue to punishment immediately. Ultimately, the horse learns to respond off
the cue and doesn't wait for the encouragement or the tell because he understands that the
queue is followed directly by the demand. When we start increasing our horses'
responsiveness we must be very aware of the level of the horse. If we demand something
that is outside of his knowledge or skill set, stress results. When the horse becomes
stressed, they start seeking a way to escape. When they become extremely stressed, the
escape can become dangerous. In all the horse training, we stress the horse and then we
relax him. This is called the Stress & Relax Cycle. Anytime you ask a horse to do more
than he has done previously he will be a little frustrated, either by the maneuver being
asked or the speed being asked and get stressed. When the horse becomes stressed, we
want to relax the horse, settle him down and go back to a lower level so that he can be
comfortable again. In all of our training, we continually push that envelope until we have
a horse at a very high level of performance who feels no stress. Very responsive horses,
ultimately, are horses that understand their jobs and are confident in their ability and can
produce high quality performances without stress.
In order to continually improve the horse and reach high levels of performance,
we must continually increase our expectations. The horse should be expected to be lighter
and more responsive to the point that the horse understands the tasks required and is
comfortable with those tasks. Ultimately, we would like the horse to be a partner and help
in the decision making in terms of going over jumps, working a cow, or running a barrel
race. In the partnership, we allow the horse to make certain decisions and we advise him.
With true partnership the rider and horse agree on what and how to perform. In some
disciplines, the horse at a high level of performance works almost independently of the
rider. So, we allow the horse to make a lot of the decisions in competitions such as
jumping, cutting, barrel racing. Yet, we demand that he allow us to be a strong advisor in
the process should it be needed. If we have established the appropriate control and the
horse has given us a good level of responsiveness, partnership results. True partnership
allows us to achieve the rhythm and balance required to create fluidity and excellence in
our horses' performance.