Pre-Cues for Training Performance with Josh Lyons

Josh Lyons shows how pre-cues can help make your horse a more willing partner.
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Josh Lyons shows how pre-cues can help make your horse a more willing partner.
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Has your horse ever given you a response before you could ask him for it? Perhaps you are riding along on the trail and you think about asking your horse to trot. Before you can give your horse the cue, your horse begins to trot. When it happens, it feels like your horse is reading your mind.

Horses have the ability to respond to much softer, subtler cues than we realize. They are very attuned to our body language, noticing patterns in our behavior and responding to our movements. Once we realize how horses are always looking for a sequence of cues, we can use this in our training to teach them to respond to less pressure and achieve greater lightness.

How Pre-Cues Work
We talked to Josh Lyons about using pre-cues in his training plan. Josh said that he sees pre-cues as a critical component, both on the ground and mounted. He defines pre-cues as "what you do before you give the cue."

As a trainer, you need to be aware of what you do. Think about the actions you take before you give a cue. If you perform the same series of actions consistently, the horse will begin to respond earlier in the cue sequence. If the horse doesn't respond to any of the pre-cues, you then give the cue, which is the strongest motivator. In the horse's mind, the cue becomes a correction. The horse doesn't want to be corrected and thus will begin to respond earlier in the cue sequence.

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Josh explained how horses and people differ in perception. When training horses, he said, we think that we need to make a change big enough for other people to see. In fact, horses are much more attuned to body language, so they will recognize and respond to much more subtle changes.

Josh's round-pen demonstration illustrates this point. When Josh cues the horse to make an inside turn or an outside turn, the horse has easily figured out Josh's body language. However, the first question Josh receives from the audience invariably is, "What cue are you using to make the horse turn to the inside or the outside?" The people watching can't identify the subtle changes in body language by just watching. But the horse had figured it out.

Josh uses pre-cues as an integral part of his training. To continually improve his horse's performance, he adds pre-cues in front of his cues. He strives to find a way to add a lighter pre-cue to the horse's current performance level. Josh tells his students, "Don't keep doing the same thing. Always strive to make it better." Pre-cues are the key to this cycle of continuous improvement.

Developing Pre-Cues

  • Think about the actions you take before you cue your horse.
  • Decide which of those actions you can apply consistently as a pre-cue.
  • Pause after giving a pre-cue so that the horse can learn to respond to the pre-cue instead of the cue.
  • Pretend the pre-cue tells the horse what you want, and use the cue itself if he misses the pre-cue. The horse will view the cue as a correction and seek to avoid it
  • Be sure to give a release when the horse responds to the cue and, as he earns it, the pre-cue.
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Benefits of Pre-Cues
Josh explained that pre-cues give two important benefits: 1) the horse becomes lighter and 2) the horse becomes less aggravated. Josh said that horses become aggravated when asked to perform the same movement repeatedly with a strong cue. This repetition, without change, causes the horse's aggravation.

Training with pre-cues allows you to add that element of change into the exercise. As the horse works to determine the sequence of pre-cues, he learns that he can respond with fewer direct cues. This focuses the horse's attention on the learning sequence and reduces his frustration level.

Using pre-cues will also make you a better rider. Because you become more conscious of your actions, you will become more consistent and more precise in using your body. These changes will improve your ability to communicate with your horse.

Josh and the Reining Spin
We watched Josh performing spins on his Paint reining mare Tari Trash. He explained how he uses pre-cues when asking her to perform a reining spin.

Most people think that you cue a horse to spin by pressing one leg against the horse's side. But that cue has limitations. How can you ask a horse to move his feet faster in the spin once you already have your leg pressed against the horse's side?

Pre-Cues at Feeding Time

You can use pre-cues to make feeding time easier. For example, if you make your horse stand in the back of the stall every time you fill his feed bucket, the horse will quickly learn that when you enter his stall with the feed bucket, he should stand in the back of his stall. Suddenly, you've avoided that constant crowding at the bucket.

When you first start making the horse stand in the back of the stall, you will need to use a strong motivator (cue) to get him away from the feed bin. However, if you stay consistent, the horse will figure out that every time you enter the stall with the bucket, you are going to make him stand in the back of the stall before he gets fed. Pretty soon, he will move to the wall when you enter the stall. You will no longer need to give him a cue to move back; he does it on his own.

Without realizing it, you have become a pre-cue. The horse has learned that a specific sequence of events always occurs. You step into the stall with the feed bucket and then you make him go to the back of the stall. The horse doesn't like the pressure put on him when you make him move, so he figures out that you entering the stall with the feed is always followed by a cue to move to the back of the stall. In order to avoid the pressure of the cue, the horse voluntarily moves to the back of the stall when you enter.

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Josh handles this problem with pre-cues. He lifts his leg away from the horse before he brings his leg down and into contact with the horse's side. When the mare feels Josh lift his leg, she initiates the spin. The higher he lifts his leg, the faster she moves her feet.

This provides several benefits:
1. The mare can initiate the spin with no physical contact from Josh, thus preventing her from being resentful of leg pressure or a spur in her side.
2. Since the horse initiates the move without physical pressure, she will be lighter and more balanced in the spin.
3. Josh has a correction ready if she fails to initiate the spin or doesn't put enough energy into the spin. He can simply bring his leg down and lie it against her barrel. The mare sees this as a correction and will respond to the pressure with energy.

When watching the pair work, it was obvious that this approach succeeds. The mare initiated the spin whenever Josh asked and did so willingly with no signs of resentment.

Pre-Cues: The Basics
Before we address how to use pre-cues in your training, let's do a quick review of how we train a horse to respond to a cue. The basic approach consists of four steps:

1. Select a desired response.
2. Apply a motivator to get the response.
3. The horse experiments until he gives the correct response.
4. Reward the horse by removing the motivator.

When the horse has learned the correct response to the motivator, the motivator has become the cue.

To add pre-cues, we need to identify what pre-cues we want to use and in what sequence we will use them. The pre-cues should start with the lightest action possible and get progressively stronger, with the final cue being a motivator that the horse cannot ignore.

Once you have decided on the sequence, you need to incorporate another key element - a wait period or a pause. When executing your series of pre-cues, you must put a pause between each pre-cue. This gives the horse time to respond to the light cue before you give him the next, stronger cue.

Trainer's Tip:It's Not Anticipation, It's Pre-Cues

Often you will hear people complain that their horse is anticipating their cues and responding before he is asked. Horses competitively shown at horse shows often learn to respond to the announcer instead of waiting for their rider's cue. Barrel racers have problems with horses becoming overly excited at the sight of barrels set up in the arena. Dressage horses learn the dressage pattern and anticipate the next movement.

All of these behaviors prove that our horses are constantly looking for patterns in their life and are ready and willing to respond to them. That barrel horse knows that barrels standing in the ring mean he is going to be asked to run them. The dressage horse knows that a turn across the diagonal means he is going to extend his gait.

Once we understand how the horse looks for pre-cues in everything, we can adjust our training accordingly. When we want to train him to respond earlier in the sequence of events, we should always execute the same sequence of cues. When we don't want the horse to anticipate our requests, we must be careful not to establish a pattern. Walk that barrel horse around those barrels as often as you run him. Halt the dressage horse at various places on the diagonal instead of always extending his gait.

Most importantly, don't blame your horse for anticipating your desires. Once you understand how his mind works, you can avoid the pitfalls of pre-cues and enjoy all the benefits they bring to your training program.

To illustrate this point, think about asking your horse to trot. Suppose you have decided to use two cues, a voice command ("trot") and a squeeze with both legs. If you say "trot" and use your legs at the same time, the horse doesn't have a chance to respond to only the voice command. Instead, you should say "trot" first, pause and then apply the leg cue. This sequence, with the pause in between the two cues, will give the horse time to respond by trotting as soon as you say "trot," and then there will be no need for the leg cue.

Now let's return to our list of steps and add pre-cues to our training plan:

1. Select a desired response.
2. Give the first pre-cue and pause.
3. Give the second pre-cue and pause.
4. Apply a motivator to get the response.
5. The horse experiments until he gives the correct response.
6. Reward the horse by removing the motivator.

As in the previous sequence, the motivator has become the cue when the horse has learned the correct response. However, this training sequence allows the horse to improve well beyond the basic concept of responding to the motivator (cue). Because the trainer has added pre-cues with a pause in between, the horse has an opportunity to avoid being given the cue. He can act upon one of the pre-cues and avoid the actual cue, which the horse sees as being more severe.

The example we have shown here includes two pre-cues, but you can build as many as you want into the steps. As the horse learns these pre-cues, you can add an even lighter pre-cue before the first one.

Pre-Cues: A Practical Example
We asked Josh for a practical example of using pre-cues in everyday training. He mentioned training a horse to stop, something everyone in any discipline needs.

To begin, the horse needs to understand the stop cue. Going back to our previous steps, we can apply them to teaching a basic stop:

1. Select the desired response: the horse stops his feet.
2. Apply a motivator (cue) to get the response: taking the slack out of the rein.
3. The horse experiments until his feet come to a halt.

4. Reward the horse by releasing the rein.

Once the horse understands the cue to stop when you take all the slack out of the rein, you can progress to the next step, which is working with pre-cues to have the horse respond before you take the slack out of the rein.

In this training exercise, the goal is to have the horse stop when the rider says "whoa." Before you begin this exercise, the horse must be consistent in stopping his feet when you take the slack out of the rein and he must be able to back up on cue.

This is how the exercise works when you add pre-cues:

1. Select the desired response: the horse stops his feet.
2. Give pre-cue 1: sit deep in the saddle, pause.
3. Give pre-cue 2: verbal command "whoa," pause.
4. Give pre-cue 3: slowly pick up the rein, pause.
5. Apply a motivator (cue) to get the response: taking the slack out of the rein.
6. The horse's feet come to a halt.
7. Cue the horse to back until he reaches the spot where you said "whoa."
8. Reward the horse by releasing the reins.

Using a consistent sequence of cues allows the horse to respond to the pre-cues earlier in the sequence.

When you start this exercise, you will first see the horse responding to the halt command when you begin to take the slack out of the reins. As you continue to practice your halts, the horse will begin to halt when you reach to pick up the rein. As you continue to work the exercise, the horse will begin to stop when you say "whoa." If you continue the exercise beyond that, the horse will stop when you sit deep in the saddle.

Training with pre-cues works because the horse identifies what comes immediately before the cue. If you are consistent in your cue sequence and you give the horse time to respond between cues, the horse will try to anticipate the cue and perform the action on his own. This allows us to make our horses lighter, giving us more performance with less activity on our part.

As we have seen, there are enormous benefits to understanding pre-cues and incorporating them into our training program. To use pre-cues effectively, we must become more aware of the signals we give our horse. And we must use the same signals consistently.

Take a tip from Josh: "Don't keep doing the same thing - always strive to make it better." Using pre-cues is the key to that improvement.