Setting Good Ground Rules Part 2
Stop and Go

In this Part 2 of our series I will explain how I train the basic responses of “go forward” and “stop” from the ground.

Before you start

Make sure you are wearing gloves, a safety helmet and appropriate boots, and work in an enclosed area with safe footing. Your horse should wear a suitable halter and lead rope or a bridle, and you should have a long dressage whip available.

Handler position:

Stand facing the horse level with his head. In the early stages of training you want to face the horse so you can clearly see what he does with his feet. Hold the lead rope just below the clip. Don’t worry if your horse is looking around, don’t try to control his head movements at this stage, concentrate only on what his legs are doing. Looking around is just a sign that the horse is insecure, and when he starts to understand the training, he will become more relaxed.

Training “stop” is first trained with a step back. As we explained last month, the muscles a horse uses to stop, slow down and step back are the same, and the step back is actually a deeper response to stop. I therefore normally start the session by seeing if I can get the horse to step back one single step from light backward pressure from the lead rope or reins, and one step with each front leg.

“Step Back” – The basic Attempt

You are aiming to get the horse to step back, even just one small step. That’s what we call a basic attempt, which must be rewarded with a release of pressure. From there you can repeat the exercise until he takes a larger, clearer step, one step at a time.

With pressure, the basic rule is to apply a light pressure and if within two seconds you don’t get a response, increase it with a vibration of the rein and release at the first sign of a basic attempt.

Make sure the horse has completed a single step back before asking him to do another. Asking for multiple steps “back-back-back” is likely to confuse him. As you work on each step from each front leg, you may notice that one leg takes a smaller step than the other one, or he is a bit heavier when responding with one leg (it takes more pressure to get him to step back with one leg than the other), and the next stage would be to get him to take equal size steps with each leg, and to make him a little lighter. This is taking the response from a basic attempt to “obedience level”, but before I do that I prefer to work on “go” at basic attempt level.

“Go” – The basic attempt

To train the horse to lead forward from pressure, you need to remain standing in the same position as before, facing the horse and with your shoulder level with his head, so you can watch what his legs are doing, and you can clearly release the pressure at the exact right moment when your horse takes the step that you are asking for. Apply a light forward pressure on the lead rope, this will apply pressure to his poll. If he does not take a step forward straight away, you might need to pull the lead rope to the side a bit or towards you (taking care to stay clear of his feet). Pulling sideways can make it easier to get that first attempt to step forward which you can reward by releasing the pressure. Once again repeat the exercise until your horse takes a single step forward from light lead pressure.

Progress to obedience level

At this time I need to take the “step back” and the “go” responses to obedience level. At obedience level you are aiming for two clear steps (back or forward) from light pressure. This is when the long dressage whip comes in handy.

We train the whip as a signal using pressure-release in the same way we train the lead, reins or leg signals. We do it because it tends to be more motivating and harder for the horse to ignore than other signals. You only need to use it with light taps, but they need to be quite close together, using a “tap-tap-tap” motion. You want to hold the whip not how you ride with it, but more how you would hold a tennis racket, with your index finger pointing down the shaft of the whip.

The long whip – habituation first

The first thing to do, is to make sure your horse is not afraid of the whip contact. You should be able to rest the whip on your horse’s body maybe around his wither area and if he should move forwards you can use your stop aid while keeping the whip in contact with his body. The horse should not learn that whip contact means “move”. Make sure he accepts the whip on his shoulder area, on his ribcage, and even on his chest, correcting any steps forwards that he might take. If your horse is oversensitive to the whip contact, make sure you spend enough time and be careful not to “tickle” him or bump him with it, rest the whip quite firmly against his body. When you can repeatedly remove the whip and rest it on his body again, you know you can start to train the whip as an aid and train him to step back or step forward from a light whip-tap.

“Step back” from the whip

You will be tapping below the knee, on the front of the canon bone area. You first apply your light lead pressure, and if the horse is delayed, or heavy, then you “tap-tap-tap…” one leg until it steps back, and stop tapping the moment he does. Think about which leg he is likely to move first and target that one (normally the one which is slightly in front). If the horse tries to go forward you might have to correct him with the lead rein, you may need a small vibration, keep tapping until he does take a step back, and stop tapping the moment he does. You are teaching your horse that when he feels light pressure on his nose, he should step back to avoid the “tap-tap” on his legs, or the stronger vibration on his nose. If you are really consistent with timing the increase of pressure and the release of pressure, the horse will learn this very quickly.

Remember to work just one step at a time with each leg, one foot – one complete step back and release, and then the other foot.

You can also operant condition the whip taps without applying any initial lead pressure. This means you only tap without giving any other signal, until the horse attempts a step back and stop tapping when he does. This makes it very clear to the horse that the tap on the canon bone means he should step back.

Once your horse can do one step backwards from the whip with each front leg, you then aim to get two steps backwards from light pressure. When he takes a step back with one foot you tap the other so he takes that one back and stop tapping to reward the complete stride. When your horse responds to the light lead pressure with two clear even steps, you are at obedience level.

“Go” from the whip

You start by resting the whip on the horse’s ribcage, in the area where your legs will be when you ride him. Make sure you can first rest the whip on him, correcting any forward or backward steps he takes. Your dressage whip should be long enough, about 1 to 1.1 m so you can still stand at your horse’s head, holding the rein under his chin, with the whip resting on his belly. Apply a light lead pressure on the rein forward, and if you feel there is no response, start tapping lightly, until the moment that he does take a step forward when you immediately stop tapping and point the whip down to the ground. He may do more than one step forward, that’s ok, you just ask him to stop. We train our horses not to follow us, but to only respond to the pressure, so we ask for the step forward without walking forward ourselves.

As he learns that the whip taps mean go, he may not let you rest the whip on his body anymore, preferring to step forward, and here it is important that you go back to whip contact, asking him to stand still before you ask him to step forward again with a light tap. If you don’t he will start moving as soon as he sees the whip coming, and he will learn to be scared of it. The acceptance of the contact of the whip is almost more important in the early stages than the response to the tapping. he must be completely relaxed about having the whip touch all over his body. Once he is relaxed he will find it much easier to discriminate between neutral contact and the aid/tap. Again with consistent timing, your horse will quickly learn to avoid the whip tap by responding to the light forward pressure of the halter, and this is when you have trained go to obedience level.

The time taken to train each response to obedience level depends on the horse and the situation. Often, horses a more controlled by the environment than their handler, and in that case it will take longer. You need to be aware that in the beginning, every time you change the surroundings, even if you turn him around and he sees a different view, he may again be more controlled by the environment and you may need to go back over what you thought he already had learned. If your timing is quite good this basic training in hand shouldn’t take long.

Relaxation is a sign of progress

You should notice that your horse starts to relax as he understands the stop and go, he may lick his lips, snort, shake his head, this is all normal, other signs of relaxation are lowering the head, not looking around as much and slowing the blinking down.

The next stage in the training is to train and test “park”, and this will be the subject of next month’s article.

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