By Jennifer Klitzke
At what point does a cue escalate to a punishment—a whisper to a shout? Think about what the horse actually learns from a punishment. Here’s an important tip.
When I learn something from someone, I make it a practice to credit my source. In this case, I thank Grand Prix dressage rider Heather Blitz for a priceless tip that has transformed my riding with my naturally gaited Walking horse, Makana.
When Heather isn’t riding, training, or competing, she travels and teaches. I have learned so much from auditing her clinics when she visits my state.
At the last clinic, Heather shared a valuable tip in reference to a horse that was reluctant to go forward. She had my full attention, because of all the horses I’ve ever ridden, Makana is by far the least ambitious to go forward. I have tried every strategy I know of. Each strategy seems to work at first, but doesn’t have lasting success, and I could never figure out why until Heather shared this valuable tip.
She said, “Never let a punishment replace a cue.” Ask politely and lightly. That’s the cue. If the horse ignores you, then ask loudly and clearly using your legs and crop if needed. That’s the punishment. DO NOT proceed after the punishment. (That’s the critically important part.) Immediately stop and ask politely and lightly again to teach the horse the whisper cue. Then immediately STOP cueing when the horse responds. (That’s the second most important part.)
Proceeding right after the punishment was the essential ingredient missing from my training. To my horse the punishment became the cue, and it didn’t take long before she just tuned me out. While I was thinking, “You lazy horse. If you would just continue moving forward, I wouldn’t have to squeeze my guts out and use my crop to make you move.” While my horse was thinking, “You, bully, no matter what I do I never seem to get it right. I wish you would stop nagging me with every step!”
Ding-dong! Now I know why new strategies never lasted very long. It wasn’t that the strategies failed. It was that I wasn’t stopping after the punishment to ask lightly and politely to train the whisper cue. Plus, I continued to nag my horse after my horse had responded. While I felt sad at the miscommunication I had caused my horse, I was elated with the key to resolve our forwardness issue.
It is vitally important to immediately stop after a punishment and ask again in a whisper. The whisper cue is the aid the horse needs to respond to. Over time the horse will move off a polite and light cue and need less loud reminders.
This training tip has made an enormous difference for me and my horse. Makana is so much more responsive thanks to Heather. I hope that by sharing my mistake will save you and your horse miscommunication and lead you to quicker success and greater harmony.
If you are fortunate enough to live near one of Heather’s upcoming clinics, I HIGHLY encourage you to audit. While she doesn’t train gaited horses, you’ll learn so much as it relates to rider bio-mechanics and the essence of good dressage training which applies equally well to the gaited horse.
Video: Application of Cues vs Punishments