A Trainer’s Tips by Jennifer Weber
Reprint from GVDS Newsletter January 2018
No matter what breed or discipline I am riding, I always like a responsive horse that goes when I say, “Go” and stops when I say, “Stop”. We wouldn’t drive a car that went only after we pushed the gas five times and we wouldn’t want our cars to stop 5 seconds after we pushed the brake. Some horses would need the runaway truck tramps we see on the passes to bring them to a halt, they stop so poorly. We drive cars that go immediately and stop the same, we should expect this from our horses. We need this energy to bring the horse in front of our leg and have the horse properly driving from behind and through their body to the contact.
It is imperative for upper level horses to be in front of the leg and all horses should be moving through the levels with this feeling a focus.
Rhythm, the base of the riding pyramid, is composed of energy and tempo. When you squeeze your horse to move forward, you should feel a surge of this energy and their shoulders should rise. Horse/rider combinations that have more “Go” than “Whoa” are usually those horses that do eventing, jumping, trail riding, or some other discipline requiring them to use an uninhibited forward motion.
Since most rider/horse teams have more “Whoa” than “Go”, I will review my methods for getting an improved response when you apply your leg.
Don’t forget to review your riding and be sure you are not over-stimulating your horse to the point he is immune to your aids. I’ve overheard riders talking about a horse that was a “leg ride.” A horse only becomes a “leg ride” if they have been ridden with a rider that kicks or squeezes all the time. Lars Petersen described a horse that is dead to the leg, ”..constantly peddling your horse, or squeezing so hard that you finally feel like you are giving birth.” I describe it as a horse that has the anchor out or the emergency brake on. We should be riding a horse that works harder than we do— a horse that is “forward thinking”. Forward thinking should feel like someone is behind the horse with a whip keeping them going without the rider kicking all them time.
How do we get a horse to think forward without overusing the leg? We have to think forward, expect forward and reward or reprimand it if it does or does not happen. And forward means, “Go”. The “Go” cue consists of a consistent series of effects of the leg.
Step one, I will squeeze with my calf, if the horse does not accelerate immediately, Step two, I will then use my heel with a swift kick that I call a “Pony Kick”. The horse should then go forward. If it doesn’t, I apply Step three. I throw the reins forward and increase the intensity of my kicks until I get a forward similar to that of a dog going after a ball. In this step there is nothing holding the horse back and no use of rein. I allow the horse to gallop forward for half or all of the arena. The horse has to learn that they will not hit the rein every time they go forward. For this we have to be brave and gallop our horses forward. Charlotte Dujardin, says to her riders “Go!, Go!, Go! Yahoo!” If you are using the rein because you lose balance backward you need to do two things, one hold onto the saddle so you don’t hit the horse with the reins and two, get stronger in your core!
When you get your horse if front of your leg with good energy, another thing necessary for this to be effective is you have to be BRAVE and trust that your horse will be fair to you and stop when you are ready. I generally have worked enough with my horse on the ground that I can get a whoa if I need one during this exercise. The “whoa” part of my training is another topic. If you don’t have a confident “whoa” cue, then it will be hard to not apply the brake too soon during the “yahoo” moments and end up confusing the horse with what you are asking.
It is important to ride a horse that is responsive. You cannot really move up the training scale without it. Spend time to make this part of your ride and expect it out of your horse to make all your riding more enjoyable and productive.