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Horse Training Principles - Clarity

Updated on March 6, 2013

Horses and Clarity

Horses send very strong signals. Anyone who has watched a herd at feeding time will see this. They can be subtle at times...a horse may let it be known that it doesn't feel like working with a downward flick of the ears. Or not - I've known more than one horse that would stop and lie down if it felt it was 'done'.

Mules, in particular, tend to lack subtlety, which is why many trainers feel they need harsher treatment. They don't, they just need to be treated as bluntly as they treat you and each other.

What all equines need, however, is to understand what you are saying. Every signal given to a horse needs to be clear and certain.


The most likely horse to become confused is a green one. Some confusion is to be expected when teaching a new maneuver or exercise.

A confused horse will show specific behaviors. He may spook at apparently nothing or, more likely, stop and balk. A good horse, however, will start trying stuff until he hits on what you are asking. At this point clarity becomes extremely important. You need to very obviously and bluntly reward the confused horse when he finds the correct response. If you do not and keep flailing, the horse may shut down mentally and stop listening. At that point, there's not much you can do other than give up for the day and let him cool his heels.

Because of this, green horses should be given 'louder' aids or signals than trained horses. Although a good goal is to have your signals be invisible to an observer, you can't try that with a horse that does not know you and the exercises you're attempting. This also goes for a new horse, that is still unfamiliar with your precise riding style. Many trainers will carry a crop at all times on a green horse so they can use it to reinforce and clarify signals.

The effectiveness of clarity in correction.

When correcting a horse, it is very important that the horse knows exactly what it is being told off for. Too many people will wait too long or flail around with their corrections. Beating a horse is almost always unclear. Coming back from the trail ride and then beating the horse for something it did out there will only cause the horse to think it's being punished for coming home.

This is why biting is the one exception to the general rule of never hitting a horse on the head.

Many years ago I was working with a Welsh pony who had the vice of 'stall aggression'. That is, he would attack anyone who entered his stall, with whichever end of him was closer. He kicked quite a number of people...including me.

One day, I went into his stall with a standard riding crop. When he tried to kick me, I hit him on the back of the offending leg, quite hard. Once.

That was the last time that pony ever tried to kick me.

Clarity and immediacy combined can make for a correction the horse will never forget...which is always kinder than having to keep harping on the problem. I would not normally hit a horse on the leg, which is particularly painful for the animal, but if I had to deal with another chronic kicker, I would do exactly the same thing again. It works, and in the end, that is the best thing for the horse - chronic kickers and biters are likely to end up on the slaughter truck.

Whatever correction you give, thus, has to be clear - directly connected to the offense.


Precision and Clarity

In another incident, I was riding a relatively green horse and asked for a canter leg yield.

I got a beautiful flying change.

I had made one small error in the cues that caused the horse to perform the wrong exercise. It was not his fault...he did the movement I said rather than the one I meant.

Clarity becomes even more important when working at higher levels and on more complicated maneuvers (this is why advanced dressage riders and most rodeo riders wear's not to give stronger aids, but more precise ones). A horse should never be punished for presenting you with the wrong exercise. It's far more likely that you were not clear than that the horse deliberately misunderstood you. Instead, calmly repeat the exercise, thinking very carefully about what you are doing and making sure it is right. Be sure to clearly reward correct responses.

The horse that gave me the wrong exercise got a reward, not a punishment, because he did it right. Do not blame the horse for your mistakes.


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