Years ago, at a TTouch clinic, we played a classic TTeam game. The idea was to help riders see through their horses’ eyes.
One of the participants offered to be a horse, and the instructor offered to be the rider/trainer.
The “horse” stood attentively, waiting for instruction. Within seconds, the “rider/trainer” said in a firm tone of voice, “Orange.”
The horse did nothing. So the rider again said “Orange,” only this time a bit more loudly.
The horse now moved a foot and lowered her head. The rider responded by shouting “Orange!” The horse moved both feet. Wrong again. At which point, the rider shouted, “Orange, orange, orange!”
The horse kicked. She was a Thoroughbred. And, true to her breed, she didn’t suffer fools gladly.
All kidding and citrus aside, we speak a foreign language to our horse when we train. It is only we who believe that what we do with our body and voice constitute “aids.” We are not helping a horse do something that they already know how to do, we’re setting up a stimulus/response that makes sense only to us. Young horses naturally move into pressure…it is only through repetition that we teach them to move away from pressure. There is no “aiding” involved. To a horse, it’s completely counterintuitive.
There is a reluctance, outside Western training or natural horsemanship, to speak of “aids” as “cues.” When I was learning how to ride, no one shied away from calling them “commands,” but that has fallen out of favor. Am I the only one who finds the reluctance to call these aids “commands” to be more than a little ironic in the Age of Rollkur?
Whatever we call them — aids, cues, commands — they are still gibberish to the horse, until he makes the connection between what we say and what we’re looking for as a response…the right answer.
The only way the horse can recognize that he’s given us the right answer is through our response to that answer — a reward of some kind, whether it’s a release, a caress, a click-and-treat, or verbal praise. If we neglect to give that feedback to the horse, we’re shouting “Orange!” and leaving our horse in the dark. Trainers who refuse to acknowledge the right answer only encourage their horses to persist in a frustrating guessing game.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that consistent application of the aids is required before the right answer is solidified in the horse’s mind…or you may be training the horse to give the same answer to more than one set of aids. Precision and subtlety are hard to build from that kind of platform.
Once the reward has been given enough times (wisdom has it that three will do it) the horse will make the connection. In my mind, that’s not necessarily a reason to stop rewarding, but hopefully by that point, I’ll be asking for something more…and there will be a new reward to come in answer to the horse’s next right answer.
My own reward is often saying “that’s the right answer” in a cheery tone of voice. I do it so consistently that my horses and my students’ horses soften their eyes, lick their lips or carry themselves with a little more cadence when they hear the phrase “the right answer” — whether or not it comes from me.
We should all try to remember that if we have to say “Orange” more than once, we should refrain from shouting when we don’t get the right answer right off the bat. If we don’t, not even the smartest or most generous horse can be expected to understand.