In most articles or books about horsemanship you’ll find a reference to timing. While many people are aware of the idea of effective timing the practise of it can be quite difficult to master. It’s one of those things that set the distance between a beginner and an experienced horse trainer. It can appear to be a small thing in the moment but the progression of effective training is totally dependent on it.
The single most important area where timing is crucial is the release of an aid. Many people release too late, resulting in a slow and sometimes frustrating learning experience for the horse. When you apply a pressure, such as a rein aid, the moment the horse starts to soften and give to the pressure is the moment you release. This is literally on the moment, the very second you feel the first give. This marks the spot, the place where the horse softens, and it lets the horse know ‘yes…that’s the correct response’.
The horse will continue to give a little beyond where you release the aid. If at that point you want more movement you seamless reapply the aid, using a soft, squishy rein aid as if you were squeezing water from a sponge. The idea is that the beginning and the end of your aid are soft and somewhat gradual. I don’t mean taking more than a few seconds, but the aid needs to have softness on both ends. The jerky and sudden application of aids does not create a soft horse. It's like being in a car suddenly plonking your foot on the accelerator then jerking it off, you wouldn't do this, as the car would bump it's way along. It's the same with the horse. In this way you continue to have a conversation with the horse. Every single time your horse gives you give. As you continue to ride this way your horse will start giving bigger and bigger responses with less and less rein aid from you. As I’m always saying, less is more.
Now I’ll explain what I often see, so it’s easier to understand the difference. A rider knows what they want from the horse, e.g. a right hand turn at the corner, and will maintain the aid until the horse has completed the turn, when they then release. I know this seems logical to us but from the horses’ perspective something different is happening. They are not being given the feedback that turning is correct. The reward comes after they’ve finished the turn, when they’re straight. So to the horses’ brain going straight is where they get the release of pressure. This is where the pressure was released so this becomes the point that’s marked in the horses’ brain. Over time the horse becomes less and less responsive to the turning aid, which is the point where it starts to look like the rider is pulling the horse around the turn.
Every time I apply a turning aid with a horse, in my head I am asking for a yield. I want the horse to soften and yield to the pressure from the rein, this is more important than the actual turn. Doing yields on the ground is a great way to practise this, and then take that same soft feel to the reins when you’re riding. All the riding aids are yields. This is how you get a soft and responsive horse. Having this idea in your mind when you apply the rein aids will result in you really feeling the horse with your hand, having a two way conversation.
While this article is about rein aids, in particular turning, the principles apply to all aids you apply to a horse. We want our horse to be a willing partner. Riding should never be something we inflict on our horses. By having a conversation with your horse and being super clear about what you’re asking, it can be as much fun for the horse as it is for you.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Lismore, NSW, Australia
Ph: 0401 249 263
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