When separating excellent horsemanship from average horsemanship, the dividing line is how well we can move from light signals to enforcement of signals. But then also how well we can move from enforcement back to light signals. This is the ability to read our horse.
The basic mechanics of communicating to a horse are defined in God’s first three commandments. I summarize them as the Simon Says game. We focus on God (our horses focus on us) separating false gods from truth (teaching a horse when not to move versus when to move).
God’s fourth commandment (observe the Sabbath) adds life to the situation. This is the one that helps transform us from a robot to a true lead dancer. The three parts of this are the ability to observe, remember and compare. We observe the now, remember what just happened so we can compare to help us adjust what to do next. This helps us develop feel to get the lightness that gets the smoothness of a dancer.
Our goal is to basically communicate to our horses with body language. We would like to communicate with as subtle body language as possible, but in the real world there are many things to distract the horse so we might have to do more to get their attention. Voice sounds go a long ways in getting a horse’s attention to help us signal more lightly. To keep it simple, use high energy noises such as kissing, clucking or hissing sounds, and save your soft lullaby sounds for calming or stopping (many people use soft sounds such as “c’mon, lets go” to ask for more energy).
When we teach people to use body language to signal a horse, we emphasize to exaggerate it to begin with so the horse gets a clear signal before we have to enforce what we are asking them. When the horse starts understanding body language we can make it more subtle as we go. This is what seems to be the hardest thing for us humans to adjust to.
We need to be able to give a horse a chance to listen to our subtle body language but if they do not respond, we have to go to more exaggeration and then enforcement of our signals. We can catch ourselves not checking to see if the horse will respond to less but instead robotically asking in the same exaggerated body language we originally taught them with.
When we start out, this exaggeration is OK because we are trying to be very obvious to the horse. But if we continue doing this, not only does it not look good, but we are not sharpening our horse to be sensitive to us, therefore we are beginning to go the opposite direction.
The critical thing to learn which seems to take the most practice is the “dwell” time between when we signal softly and when we have to enforce our signal. When we start out we should allow more time, but we can shorten the dwell time as we go. We need to be sure to listen for the feedback the horse is giving us to determine whether they are truly listening to us so we can adjust what we do. This will result in much more smoothness, the smoothness of two dancers working together.
This is the free “high” we are looking for, which makes the horse-and-rider team so smooth in every way.
Mike Daniels is a horsemanship trainer and barefoot trimming specialist from Raymondville. His columns are posted online at www.houstonherald.com. Call him at 417-457-1015.