Moving Toward Intent: Is Your Training Too Loud?

As Nicole works on rebuilding her training program, one of her main goals is to get her horses to respond to her intent — getting them to read her body language and respond accordingly. Follow along for the early steps of this journey.

“Goldie, I said move over. I did not ask you to back up, I don’t know why you would think that. Now step forward into the position I wanted you in and then move over three steps.”

Yes, I once had a boarder that spoke to their horses in full paragraphs just like this. I think we can all agree that horses do not understand us when we speak to them in sentences, let alone paragraphs. Throw in some waving arms, the tapping of a stick, the shaking of a lead, and we have some very busy, or loud, language going on between human and horse.

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When this kind of communication is going on, how well do you think the horse is going to understand what is being asked of it? Do you think Goldie will figure out to move over with all the other verbage and body signals going on in the above scenario?

Highly doubtful. If she happens to move over, it will most likely be because she gets frustrated and starts performing as many maneuvers as she can think of to give the right answer. To learn she gave the right answer, Goldie needs the owner to show her a release when she does the correct maneuver. Guessing by the owner’s messy cueing, the release may also be busy or poorly timed, just adding to Goldie’s frustration.

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The owner really needs to quiet their language — both verbal and physical — to make communication clear.

Compared to the above example, my communication with my horses seemed simple and straight forward. I thought I had done a good job refining my craft over the years, and I knew I had developed a soft feel and quick release.

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But there is always room to improve, and if the goal is to have my horse respond based on my intent, then I had a lot of adjustments to make.

If you are an equestrian who seeks out knowledge or betterment, the idea of quieting your language or becoming softer with your cues is nothing new to you. For example, when it comes to bit pressure, we strive to become lighter with our hands to achieve softness from our horse with the slightest movement of rein.

Our body language and ground work should not be any different, and that is my goal…to speak to my horse in a whisper, rather than shout.

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What happens to our horses when we fail to be light with our hands? They become heavy mouthed and dull. What do you think happens to our horses when our communication on the ground is too loud? They start ignoring the whispers and intent, forcing us to get louder and louder to get a response, making them dull to our body movements, verbal warnings and pressures.

To achieve a quieter language of communication, I stick with a three-step process that starts with the intent, followed by a verbal warning cue, then using pressure if needed.

Simplifying my intent required me to really think about what I was doing with my body. Was I being obvious about what I was asking? Was the signal I was giving unique to the specific desired behavior, or could it easily be misunderstood as another cue? At times I felt a little silly about over exaggerating my body positioning to communicate a cue, but I realized that is exactly what I needed to do to avoid confusion with my horse. Which I did a lot of. And still do, but hopefully less and less as we go.

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At first, my use of verbal cues were unorganized. I found myself fighting rather engrained muscle memory to move right to pressure, skipping intent and verbal cues altogether.

I had to improve the timing of my verbal cues, but also refine what verbal cues to use. I designated a kiss to forward and backwards, a cluck to lateral, and a click to mark a desired behavior. Not only would this help simplify my language for my horse, it would also help give me ways to build upon desired behaviors.

My first step toward advancement had to be changing my muscle memory. I figured the easiest way to do this was to work on maneuvers Bugatti already knew. This would make it easy for me to work on myself without messing her up completely since she already knew how to complete these maneuvers with pressure. We worked on backing, leg yielding, forequarter yield and hindquarter yield to start out.

To keep myself on track with creating the foundation I will need to do a liberty start, I listed the basic maneuvers I want to perfect before I build on them. I want these maneuvers to be so refined that she is performing them all proficiently at just intent.

The basic maneuvers we will be working on perfecting are:

  • Back Up from energy bubble, when walking next to me, to my lean, and from soft feel in halter.
  • Hind Quarter Yield
  • Fore Quarter Yield
  • Circles
  • Leg Yield
  • Circles with Bend
  • Sidepass Toward Me

She is currently able to perform all of the above maneuvers, at varying degrees of consistency, and now we are working on refinement. Stay tuned to read about our progress.