Re­in­force Re­spon­sive­ness

Here’s how to sharpen your horse’s re­sponses to cues. A

Horse & Rider - - Practice Pen - By Robin Golle­hon, With J. Fors­berg Meyer

When your horse lis­tens and re­sponds promptly to your cues, it boosts your con­fi­dence as a rider. This kind of re­spon­sive­ness must be cul­ti­vated, how­ever, and you do that by know­ing when and how to re­in­force a cue. I’m go­ing to ex­plain this con­cept, us­ing a re­quest for a back-up as an ex­am­ple.

As a trainer I’ve no­ticed many rid­ers don’t re­al­ize they should be re­in­forc­ing their cues as ne­c­es­sary. When their horse doesn’t re­spond as he should, they over­look it, think­ing, “He’ll do bet­ter next time.” But when­ever you’re work­ing with your horse, you’re train­ing him, whether you re­al­ize it or not. You’re ei­ther teach­ing him that a lack­lus­ter re­sponse is OK (by let­ting him get away with it), or teach­ing him that a crisp, cor­rect re­sponse is what’s re­quired.

Proper cue­ing goes like this: You give your horse the cue, al­low­ing a rea­son­able (for that cue) re­ac­tion time for him to re­spond. If he doesn’t give what you’ve asked for in that time­frame, you fol­low through with a re­in­force­ment that makes sense for that cue. What do I mean by “makes sense”? For ex­am­ple, if your horse won’t go for­ward, you wouldn’t use back­ing up as re­in­force­ment, as that’s the op­po­site of go­ing for­ward. The goal isn’t to pun­ish your horse; it’s to teach him to want to do what you’ve just asked, promptly and cor­rectly.

Let’s use the ex­am­ple of cue­ing for a back-up. (The gen­eral prin­ci­ples I ex­plain will ap­ply to any cue re­quest.) You’ve asked your horse to back up by draw­ing the reins back and up a bit in a soft cue. But even af­ter a heart­beat of re­sponse time (what you’d ex­pect for this cue), he hasn’t re­sponded. Pretty soon your hand is up in the air, ap­proach­ing your chest. Now your horse is fi­nally back­ing up, so you think, “OK, fine.” But it isn’t fine. You must draw the line so that your horse learns he must re­spond when your hand gets “here,” not all the way up “there.”

The re­in­force­ment is to grasp the reins far­ther down and pull a bit more sharply to in­sist he re­spond as he should. How much sharper? Ev­ery horse is dif­fer­ent; you must find what works for your horse with­out over­do­ing it. In other words, at what point does he pay at­ten­tion and re­spond?

Af­ter he re­sponds to the re­in­forced cue, go back and ask again with the orig­i­nal soft cue. This is key be­cause it’s how your horse learns that if he re­sponds promptly to the softer cue, he doesn’t get the sharper one. You’ll be amazed how quickly your horse “gets it” if you’re ex­tremely con­sis­tent in this.

Why you need this. How it works. How to re­in­force.

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