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Master the “Slow Down” Cue

Set up a pattern of cones  or buckets and use them to help you make frequent changes of speed, gait and direction.

When most people think of stopping or slowing their horse, they think in terms of "putting on the brakes." The problem is that applying a mechanical solution to a thinking, breathing animal usually doesn't work. So what are your options if your horse doesn't whoa when you want him to?

Clarify the Cue

Whenever our horse isn't doing what we want, John Lyons says that our first question should be, "What cue do we want the horse to obey?" In the case of slowing or stopping, riders use lots of different cues intentionally. But they also use mixed signals, and unintentionally program the horse to ignore their rein cues.

Let's take a traffic example. When you learn to drive, you become conditioned to a stoplight cue. You know that when the light turns yellow, you should clear the intersection because, in a few seconds, the light will turn red. Red means stop now.

But what if a policeman happens to be directing traffic? You'd obey the cop's signals, despite the stoplight color. If a cop was in that intersection every time you came to it, you'd pretty soon disregard the stoplight.

That's what sometimes happens with riders and horses. When a rider uses her reins or voice to tell the horse to stop, but then also gives her horse a signal to keep going, the horse learns to disregard the stop signal. John says there are many ways that happens.

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Some riders keep their reins tight, thinking that they're holding the horse back. Instead of the reins restraining the horse, the horse learns to live with the pain of bit pressure. Because there's no "off" - no release of pressure - the reins are always "on."

So what if you make them a little tighter, more "on" than before? That would be like making the stoplight a little redder while the cop was directing traffic. The signal has lost its meaning, just as your reins would have lost the ability to communicate your wishes to your horse. A stronger bit causes more pain and so works for a while, until the horse learns to deal with that, too.

Other riders use their reins indiscriminately. They make random movements with the reins, as if they have to have something to do with their hands.

Watch the next time someone stops her horse to chat with a friend. Even if the horse stands like a statue, the rider may mess around with the reins. Look at the horse's face. Is he listening for each rein signal or has he mentally checked out, realizing that his rider isn't talking to him? Is it any wonder that he also disregards the rein signals when he's in motion?

Another rider may frequently "tap the brakes." He pulls back on the reins when he thinks the horse may be going too fast or thinking of going too fast. Then, before there's any change in the horse's speed or head position, the rider releases the rein. The horse may have held a consistent speed, so the rider may have assumed that the restraint worked, if he even thought about it at all.

This tapping of the brakes may have notified the horse that the rider was aware of his speed. But it didn't work as a cue to slow down. Consequently, when the rider pulls back on the reins to say, "slow down," the horse won't know this particular time that's what the rider wants.

For a signal to be a cue, the horse has to be conditioned to it. If the traffic department put a fourth light bulb on the stoplight - a blue light - drivers wouldn't know what it meant. (For all we know, it might mean that there's a yard sale ahead.) But if the drivers saw a radar car with other cars pulled off to the side a thousand feet beyond the blue light, they'd figure out that the blue light meant a radar trap was ahead. No one would have to put it in print for them. The blue light would become a cue, but only after the drivers know what's going on.

So what does that have to do with horse training?

It means we have to get the horse to slow or stop and then we can teach him the cue, the code word for what we want. The signal doesn't make the horse stop, any more than the blue light slowed traffic. The cue is like a secret password - it only has meaning when both the rider and horse understand it.

Let's look at this picture. Imagine yourself at the blue light. You tense a bit as you realize there's a radar trap ahead. Nonetheless, you proceed at a reasonable speed. When you pass the radar trap and you don't see red lights in your rear-view mirror, you breathe a sigh of relief. That's the release.

The next time you approach a blue light, you're less anxious because you know that there's a release beyond the radar trap if you maintain the correct speed. So it's not the blue light (the cue) that caused you to regulate your speed. It's the promise of a release 1,001 feet ahead.

In this same way, you have to get the horse to slow down before you can teach him the "slow down" cue. When he slows and we release the rein, he'll have an "aha" moment. That's the beginning of recognizing a cue. So our first job is to brainstorm ways to get the horse to slow his feet.

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