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This is a continuation of a series of Articles. 

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
Part Six
Part Seven
Part Eight
Part Nine
Part Ten
Part Eleven
Part Twelve

Horse Training - Communication 101
Part Three
By Beverly Whittington

Often I see people who make "pets" out of their horses, they want to be their best friends. Horses can be fine companions but it is a mistake to think of them as pet, like a cat or dog. They are large animals that are likely to hurt you if you’re not careful. Stroking and scratching a horse is beneficial to your relationship with the horse. Letting them use you as a scratching post is not beneficial to either of you. Know the difference, because this carries over to their relationship with you and how they see you in the dominance order. You must have the respect of your horse in order to accomplish any degree of training. You have to be consistent and clear about what you are asking of the horse and use the horse's natural reactions to teach the new behavior. Respect with horses can be achieved by being consistent with the rules.

Whenever you are working with your horse to establish a new behavior, you need to make certain that you are not asking more than they can readily respond to. Everything we teach the horse starts out as many small responses. When the horse is initially learning the meaning of a new cue, he will respond with a random action. After all, he really doesn’t KNOW that you want from the cue!

Horses have to resist things, just a little bit, so that the correct response is reinforced in his mind. The horse that never has to have his behavior corrected is headed for a blow up. During the initial stages of teaching anything, you are striving to encourage the correct random response and ignore the incorrect one. Once the horse has been rewarded for the correct response (SEVERAL TIMES), then you use negative reinforcement to strengthen the connection between a specific stimulus and the desired response.


The horse has to add a stimulus (aid or cue) one by one to his vocabulary. Stimulus’ that CAUSE a response are called aids. You teach a behavior with aids. Once the behavior is established, it is refined into a cue. Cues are conditioned responses or signals that do not necessarily make sense to the horse. Aids are horse logical. The horse reacts to that pressure or aid in a predictable way that is natural or instinctive for a horse.

For example, one of the first things you can teach a horse is to lower its head on command. This exercise has many benefits. Horses instinctually raise their heads high when stressed, ready to take flight. On the other hand the lowered head position (below the withers) helps the horse to overcome instinctive urges and enables the horse to learn to think it through or look to the handler for directions instead of reacting instinctively. When a horse has his head raise high, his body is pumping the hormone adrenaline into his system preparing him for flight or fight.  Through this exercise you can teach your horse to "turn off" or get out of the high-headed adrenaline zone area when you want them to.

You want the horse to yield at the poll, the last vertebrae that connects the spine/neck to the head. You are going to do this by showing the horse how to follow a feel. You begin on the ground, place your hand just behind the ears of the horse and press lightly downwards. At the same time exert a mild pull from a lead attached to the bottom ring of a well-fitted halter. Immediately when the horse drops its head, release the pressure on the rope. Horse will often resist, bracing against the pressure from the rope. Remember Ask, Tell, Demand, start with very little pressure, then increase and use whatever is necessary to get the job done. This is a STEADY PULL, not a JERK! Reward the horse AFTER it has lowered its head. You are teaching through negative and positive reinforcement. The pressure is not released (the negative reinforcement) until the horse obliges you by lowering its head. You have to release the pressure IMMEDIATELY (positive reinforcement). A “good boy” followed by a scratch, alternated with a SMALL piece of apple or carrot will go a long ways to reinforce that this was the RIGHT response! You want to continue the exercise until the horse will hold his head at or below the wither on command.

The horse should begin to lower his head when you place your hand on the neck at the poll. You have just gone through a series of AIDS to teach a CUE. 

Eventually, a light pressure with your hand on top of their neck will cause the horse to lower his head EVERYTIME. Do not forget the positive reinforcement; let them know they got it right with a vocal praise. You can begin to work down their neck to the withers with this cue. You can get to where a light pressure on the withers causes the horse to lower it's head, moving his stance into his thinking or parasympathetic nervous system zone. You can use this to shut down a nervous horse. This easily lends itself to becoming a rein cue. When you place the rein down on their withers, that they need to release and drop their head. 

OK now stop a minute and think this through,,, 
You can end up with a horse that a rein cue of placing the rein on the withers causes the horse to lower its head.  Now where is the “horses logic” in that??? There is none, the AIDS were the pressure and release process that taught the horse the desired response! If you forget to reinforce the now established cue with a positive reinforcement of praise, sooner or later the horse will forget the cue! A good trainer teaches, establishes and reinforces a cue. In this way it becomes a HABIT for the horse. But just like the horse that can be taught not to stand still for mounting, you can UNTEACH this (or any) cue. 

Once a horse has mastered a cue he should perform the desired response for anyone. This is how GOOD training professionals make a living. They establish the cue for the behavior pattern and this is marketable! It is also how they continue to make a living by fixing the problem horses. Somewhere down the line, the horse has been “UNTAUGHT” the desired behavior. If you do not periodically back up cued correct responses with positive reinforcement, the responses go away!

For example, what if you had, from the saddle with a rein cue, cued the horse to drop his head. At the same time, your seat is causing the horses back to go ventroflexed. He cannot lower his neck and maintain a ventroflexed back! The horse HAS to ignore one of the cues! You have just begun the process of “un-teaching” a cue!


Ventroflexed also will be referred to as hollow or concave. The gaits with these are Pace, Stepped Pace, Rack and Saddle Gait. 

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