Putting Your Horse in Front of the Driver
Putting Your Horse In Front Of The Driving Aids
By Jane Savoie
What does your horse have in common with a turbo-charged Porsche? If you said the location of his engine–his “horsepower”–is in the rear, you’re absolutely right. So, in order to be in the driver’s seat, you need to take charge of your horse’s hind legs by putting him in front of your driving aids.
For me, putting the horse in front of the driving aids involves three steps. In the initial stage, you teach your horse to give an immediate and enthusiastic response to the subtlest of signals so that you’re able to whisper with your aids rather than shout with them. I call this being “hot off” your driving aids or “thinking forward”.
In Step 1 I’ll outline a system so you can teach your horse to “think forward” when you use any of the driving aids–legs, seat, voice and whip. I’ll describe the technique starting with your legs. Then all you’ll have to do is go through the same process to get your horse to respond eagerly to your seat, voice, and whip.
Most horses figure out this first step within the very first session. So you’ll be able to go on to Step 2 relatively quickly. In the second step, not only do you want your horse to listen attentively and react promptly to your signals as he did in Step 1, but you’ll be looking for a more educated reaction to your driving aids. Specifically, when you use your driving aids, you want him to respond by physically reaching underneath his body and stepping towards your hands with his hind legs .
Once your horse is mentally attentive and physically steps forward towards your hands with his hind legs, you can go on to the final step in putting your horse in front of your driving aids. During Step 3, you’ll refine his reaction to the aids even further by using your hands to receive and recycle all this exuberance back to the hind legs. Because the energy is recycled, it becomes self-perpetuating and your horse stays in front of the driving aids on his own. It feels as if your right leg is his right leg and your left leg is his left leg. His back serves as the bridge between his hindquarters and his front end. There’s a wonderful feeling of “oneness”–like a mythical centaur.
STEP 1 – “THINKING FORWARD” – THE LEGS
Are you from the “more leg”, “stronger leg” school of thought? If you are, you’re traveling down an exhausting road. Do you really think you can squeeeeeze a lengthening out of your horse? The fact is that you don’t make a 1200 pound animal do anything. You teach him a non-verbal language and train him to respond to the words in that language through repetition and reward.
Maybe you’re skeptical that your horse will ever react to light leg aids. After all you’ve had him a long time, and he’s pretty laid back. You’ve always had to work hard to get him going. But take my word for it. It is not only feasible, but it’s essential that you do so.
To prove to yourself that it’s possible, just watch what your horse does on a summer’s day when the flies are out. At the mere touch of a bug on his side, he flicks it off with his tail. Now, if your “thick-skinned” friend is sensitive enough to feel a fly on his side, then he ought to be able to feel light leg aids if you take the time to school him to react to them.
Here’s your new rule for leg aids: You’ll give one feather light squeeze and your horse must react instantly and eagerly. If he doesn’t, you won’t adjust your aid by repeating it or making it stronger to get a response. Instead, go through the process of teaching him to be “hot off” your leg.
To teach your horse to pay attention to your legs, follow this simple guide. If you give a light leg aid and your horse eagerly responds by going forward, reward him by patting or saying “Good Boy!”. The reward encourages him to react the same way the next time you use your leg. Alternatively, if you give a leg aid and your horse doesn’t answer at all or responds sluggishly, you’ll need to remind him to listen to you. Your “reminder” motivates him to change his response the next time you give the aid.
Before you actually correct your horse for a poor response to your leg, take a moment to consider his temperament. The easy-going fellow might need a few taps with the whip or a kick to send him forward. But the sensitive soul might only need a brush with the whip to get the same reaction. The point is not to terrorize him but to get a clearly forward “hot-off-the-leg” answer.
Also, if your horse is the type that bucks when you use the whip, it’s better to kick instead. First of all, you don’t want to get bucked off. And secondly, if he’s bucking, he’s obviously not going forward and he’s missed the whole point.
Let’s test your horse’s reaction to your legs by asking him to do a transition from walk to trot. Give the aid for the transition by closing both of your legs very lightly on his sides. If he doesn’t respond (and he probably won’t if you’re used to giving him strong leg aids), send him forward for eight or ten strides by tapping with the whip or giving him a kick.
Keep in mind that at this point, all you are looking for is some type of immediate reaction to your aids. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a “pretty” answer. That is, your horse might push backwards with his hind legs or put his head up in the air as he rushes off. None of that matters in the beginning. Your only goal when you start is to get some kind of enthusiastic answer from your horse that shows he’s paying attention to you.
While you are sending your horse forward, maintain a light contact with his mouth, but don’t give any rein aids. There’s no point in using the reins or trying to keep the horse in any kind of “round” shape if he’s not thinking forward.
Don’t be surprised if initially there is some tension when you remind your horse to listen to you. You’ll find that the tension dissipates fairly quickly once your horse understands that he’ll be rewarded for responding promptly to light aids. Remember that this phase is very brief, and it’s comforting to know that in the long run you’ll have a happier horse because you can use your legs lightly rather than grinding and pushing and squeezing every stride.
Once you’ve sent him forward, go back to the walk and ask for the transition to the trot again by retesting with a light leg aid. If he responds electrically by immediately going forward into an energetic trot when you retest, praise generously. ( At this point it’s still okay if he breaks into the canter when you do the retest–later on through repetition and reward you can explain that you just want him to trot. But for the moment ANY forward reaction deserves to be rewarded) If his reaction to your legs is “better” but not 100% wholeheartedly forward, repeat the whole process from the beginning until he makes a huge effort.
How will you know that your horse has given you a 100% response? Two ways. First his answer will be prompt and enthusiastic. You won’t feel like you need to repeat the aid or make it stronger to get a reaction. Secondly, you’ll feel like he keeps going under his own steam without any additional urging from you.
Retesting with a light leg aid is probably the most important step in the entire process. If you don’t retest, your horse only becomes more insensitive to the aids because at this point you’ve only taught him to go forward when he feels the whip or a kick. You haven’t taught him anything about reacting to a light leg aid unless you retest with it.
Here’s a checklist to sum up the process of teaching your horse to be “hot off” your leg. Be sure to include every step. If you skip one step, you’ll actually end up making your horse more dull.
1. Give a light leg aid
2. No response, half hearted response, or delayed response
3. Use the whip or kick to send him forward
5. 100% response (99.9% isn’t good enough!)
Follow these same steps as you go through the process of training your horse to listen to the rest of the driving aids. Do each aid individually. If you combine your seat with your legs, for example, your horse can react to your legs but ignore your seat. You won’t know it unless you test with the seat all by itself.
To use your seat as a driving aid, stretch up tall and give a little push with your seat as if you’re trying to move the back of the saddle towards the front of the saddle.
Get ready to test if your horse is in front of your seat by draining all the activity out of his walk.( Don’t be concerned that you’re teaching your horse to be lazy. You’ll only be doing this a couple of times as a training exercise.) Once you’re in a really pokey walk, give one aid with your driving seat. If he immediately becomes more energetic in the walk, praise him. If he doesn’t react at all or only responds a bit, send him actively forward with your legs or the whip. Then bring him back to the lazy walk, and retest by giving another push with your seat. If his reaction is immediate and wholeheartedly forward, praise him.
Once you can do this in the walk, test him in the trot and the canter.
A lot of riders forget that the voice–a clucking sound–is a driving aid, and it’s just as much their responsibility to educate their horses to their “cluck” as it is to teach their horses to listen to any other driving aid. Think of it this way. Riding around clucking every stride and getting no reaction from your horse is the same as using your legs constantly and having your horse ignore you!
To teach your horse to react to your cluck, go through the same steps that you did to train him to listen to your seat. Start in the walk and drain all the activity out of the pace. Then give one cluck. Your horse should immediately activate his walk. If he does, praise him. If he doesn’t, you know what to do. Tap him with the whip to send him forward. Reestablish the lazy walk. Retest. Praise him for a 100% answer.
Again, once he understands that he should activate his walk when he hears you cluck once, do the same thing in the trot and the canter.
You’re already familiar with using the whip as a reinforcement of the driving aids. In other words, if you use any of your driving aids–legs, seat, or voice–and your horse doesn’t respond, you tap him with the whip to remind him to pay attention to your aid.
You can also use the whip itself as a driving aid. When you do this, you’ll be expecting the same increase of activity in the paces that you got from your inside leg, seat, and voice.
Make sure your whip is long enough that you can press it against your horse’s barrel without having to pull back on the reins. Let’s say you’re riding to the left and the whip is in your inside hand–the hand that normally carries the whip so it can be used to reinforce your inside leg as a driving aid. To use your whip as a driving aid, bring your left hand directly to the left so that the whip rolls over your thigh. Position the whip so that it lies behind your calf and is almost parallel to it. Then press the whip against your horse’s barrel. (Be sure he can feel the pressure of the whip. Some square saddle pads are so large that it’s difficult to lay the whip on the horse’s side.)
As with all of the other tests of the driving aids, start by draining the activity out of the walk. Then lay the whip on his barrel. If your horse becomes more energetic in the walk as soon as you press the whip on his side, praise him. If he ignores the whip, go through steps #3 through #6 as you did before.
Now that you have your horse “thinking forward”, you really hold the reins in this partnership. Not only is the forward-thinking horse less tiring to ride but he’s much more submissive. Picture this. You’re out on the trail and he’s balky about going through a stream. You close your legs to send him forward, but he’s still thinking about wheeling and running in the other direction. So you add a push with your seat, a cluck, and lay the whip on his barrel all at the same time. He reacts to the combined effect of the driving aids by instantly jumping forward. That’s because you’ve conditioned him to do just that by systematically teaching him to “think forward”.
STEP 2 – ASKING THE HIND LEGS TO STEP FORWARD TOWARDS YOUR HAND
After Step 1, you might say to me, “Okay. I’ve got all this power, but my horse is rushing off when I use my driving aids. What do I do now?”
As soon as your horse gives you an electric reaction to your driving aids (usually after you’ve explained it to him a couple of times), you need to go on to the next step. Step 2 involves asking your horse to give a more sophisticated response to your driving aids. At this point, it’s not good enough if he reacts immediately but also pushes backwards with his hind legs and rushes off. Instead, when you use your driving aids, he should step further underneath his body with his hind legs.
To teach him to do this, go on a circle in rising trot. Close both legs and ask him to do a lengthening for a few strides. If he reacts immediately by coming forward with his hind legs and lengthening his strides and frame, praise him. If not, steady him back to the working trot and try again. You want to repeat this exercise over and over until you program him to lengthen as soon as you close your legs.
Continue to maintain a light contact with his mouth as you did in Step 1, but don’t give any rein aids yet. You need to be sure he gives you the correct response to your legs both mentally and physically before you combine legs and hands.
STEP 3-RECEIVING AND RECYCLING ENERGY
Once your horse is “hot off” your driving aids and steps underneath his body with his hind legs, you can go on to the final step in teaching your horse to be in front of the driving aids. This step involves using your reins to receive the energy from your forward-thinking horse and recycle it back to his hind legs.
Do not skip step 1 or 2. You must be satisfied with your horse’s reaction to the driving aids before you proceed to this step. That’s because “thinking forward” and stepping forward with the hind legs are prerequisites for using the reins. If you use the reins before the horse is thinking or moving forward, you’re riding your horse from front to back. That sort of hand-riding can only result in an artificial head-set. Your horse might look round because his neck is arched and his face approaches the vertical, but you’ll know that he’s not truly connected as soon as you try to do something different like a transition. Most likely he’ll drop his back and raise his head and neck. You’ll probably assume that your horse came off the bit, but the fact is he was never on the bit to begin with.
Once you’re sure that your horse reacts to your driving aids correctly, catch the energy coming from behind by closing your outside hand in a fist. The outside rein is called the rein of opposition because it can be used, as it is in this case, to oppose the speed from your driving aids. I recommend using your driving aids and rein of opposition for approximately three seconds.
Since three seconds is a fairly long time, your horse might bend his neck to the outside. If he does, use enough influence of the inside rein to keep his neck straight. I call this marriage of the driving aids, the rein of opposition, and the inside rein a “connecting half halt”.
After applying the “connecting half halt” by using the driving aids, your closed outside hand, and your optional inside hand for up to three seconds, soften the aids. Go back to maintenance pressure of your legs softly draped around your horse’s sides and your hands maintaining a pleasant, elastic contact with his mouth.
Essentially your aids say to your horse, “I’m driving you forward, but my rein of opposition doesn’t allow you to speed up. Instead you must yield to the outside hand and because you’re being driven, you’ll bend the joints of your hind legs more.” You should still feel the desire and power of the lengthening as you did in Step 2, but your closed outside hand doesn’t let him express this energy forward over the ground.
Here’s your checklist for Step 3–the “connecting half halt”.
1. Use your driving aids to generate energy (close both legs and give a push with your seat).
2. Close your outside hand in a fist to receive and recycle the energy back to the hind legs.
3. If necessary, use just enough inside rein to keep the neck straight.
4. After a maximum of three seconds, soften all of the aids.
When you successfully create energy and then receive and recycle it in this way, you end up with a horse that stays in front of the driving aids. As your horse comes from behind, over his back, through his neck and steps into your hand, his balance, throughness and ease of movement improves dramatically.
DOES YOUR HORSE GO FORWARD UNDER HIS OWN STEAM?
Many riders are not even aware how much they “help” their horses to go forward. Others mistakenly think that it’s their responsibility to keep their horses active. In the walk, these riders use alternate leg aids. In the rising trot, they close their legs each time they sit. And in the canter, they squeeze once during each stride.
You shouldn’t have to drive every stride to keep your horse moving forward energetically. It’s your job to tell your horse to go on his own, and it’s his job to keep going under his own steam without you having to remind him.
Here’s a simple test you can do to see if you’re “helping” your horse too much. First, ask your horse to walk forward energetically. Then take your legs completely away from his sides. I want you to do this so you don’t accidentally “cheat” and give a little nudge with your legs here and there. Now ask yourself how long it takes before your horse starts to slow down even a hair. And how long does it take before he stops completely? The length of time it takes for either of these things to happen gives you a pretty good idea of just how hard you’ve been working to keep him going.
This article is reprinted with permission from Dressage Today ©1999.
Reproduction is prohibited without written permission from the publisher.