Building a Better Go
By Kalley Krickeberg, Chrome’s Equine Advisor
It is always much easier to cause a horse to take flight, than to expect him to stand and be calm. This is something that should always be respected about horses’ natures. That said, sometimes is seems you can’t just get your horse motivated to go somewhere!
Before you go any further, look at your horse’s personality. Is he dull or flighty, energetic or passive? If your horse is flighty or energetic, work on developing a better whoa first!
There are three things you must remember to build a better go: always have a destination; apply motivation in stages; and don’t clutch and spank simultaneously
• Have a destination.
This is probably the most important part of motivating your horse to positively respond to your request for motion: a destination! Go somewhere and rest. Most horses that are sour to simply going forward get that way because we don’t make it clear that they are actually going to a “place,” so they see no point in traveling any distance at all, much less with any considered effort. By giving your horse a destination to aim for, he will start seeing the point of responding positively and put effort into responding to your go cue.
• Apply motivation in stages.
Horses motivate each other by discomfort—what we call “negative reinforcement.” For example, they bite, kick or strike a subordinate to assert dominance or reinforce pecking order. This opposed to “positive reinforcement,” which could consist of food rewards or sounds (clicker training) that associates with a desired response. Positive reinforcement can produce positive results in some cases, but is not a natural motivational technique for a horse.
When using pressure to motivate your horse, you can use a steady pressure, rhythmic pressure or a combination of both. The concept you want to keep in mind is having at least three “gears.”
Gear 1: Squeeze lightly with your legs first while having the gait you want in mind.
Gear 2: If the horse does not respond, take your rein ends or riding crop and tap your own hips or riding boot rhythmically—NOT one big spank.
Gear 3: If he still doesn’t respond, begin tapping your horses hindquarters rhythmically until he moves, using the same intensity used on yourself. Once he moves, stop your cue immediately. If you don’t, you will not get the desired result: a horse that goes when you ask. Focus on getting your horse to respond lighter and lighter, and try not to have to use the high gear very often.
• Don’t clutch and spank at the same time!
This might be the most important thing I help people with, conceptually speaking. When you are riding, imagine you have a box around your horse that floats with you wherever you go. For simplicity’s sake, imagine that box is made of four doors; the back and side doors of the box are controlled by your seat and legs, and the front door is controlled by your hands through the reins and bridle.
When asking your horse to “go,” you close the back and side door while opening the front door so the horse has some where to go. I think a lot of people confuse things for the horse by having all the doors closed—they do that by holding some amount of pressure on the reins, which to the horse means the front door is closed, yet they spank and squeeze and bump and kick, wanting the horse to go forward. In the horse’s mind, all the doors are closed, so he might rear, buck, kick or leap to get out of the box.
The Leading Start: A going challenge for you and your horse
A really good skill you can teach your horse is to be able to “lead” him into motion from the saddle. The keys in teaching this are:
• Be patient—this is a passive technique.
• Use only one rein at a time.
• Don’t use your legs.
Sometimes just the bridle, whether it has a bit or not, can make the horse feel like the front door is closed. You can really see this with foals the first time they wear a halter—most figure it out pretty quick, but some will run backward, sit or lay down, or even flip over backward in extreme cases, all because they feel like the proverbial front door is closed. You can see then how important it is, in the horse’s mind, to have the front door open and also how important it is for us to teach them that it is.
Practice the following steps in a small, controlled area where you don’t have to worry about steering or have to stop suddenly—both interruptions can negate the purpose of the exercise.
Step 1: Start by taking one rein and bring the horse’s nose to one side with a “feel” that leads the horse in that direction and forward.
Step 2: When the horse starts to take a step with the corresponding front leg, release the rein and go with the horse. He might only take one or two steps and that’s fine, even if it is in a circle.
Step 3: If your horse is reluctant to move, don’t give up. Keep trying different angles, and don’t cheat by using your legs.
This sounds like a simple exercise, but to the horse it can be a powerful breakthrough. The goal is for your horse to start into motion relatively straight, and stay in motion at a walk until you say different. Do not try to steer him in the teaching phase; it will confuse your horse. Instead, just let him drift around the area you are in. Make sure you work on both sides of your horse and that your response is light and understood.