First things first, if you didn’t read that title jamming along with Hall and Oates,
we can’t be friends. As a trainer/clinician/coach, we pretty much never come
across a performance horse rider who doesn’t need a little more umph from their
mount at times (insert Western Pleasure joke here). In the English disciplines,
you’d commonly hear a trainer yelling, “More Leg,” while sipping a mimosa, pinky
out, and eating brie or caviar on an overly toasted cracker. In the Western world,
you might hear a trainer mentioning to their customer, “You didn’t kick him once.
I couldn’t see your legs moving at all.” Admit it. You sometimes simply run out of
more leg. What to do?
One of the things that I am consistently flummoxed by when working with new
customers is how silent many of them are when riding. Indeed you have two kinds
of riders, those who feel like they have to give the horse a running commentary of
absolutely everything, or those who get lockjaw. There is no in between. They
either completely desensitize the horse to verbal cues, or never give one. I’ve yet
to find a way to cue a horse that is lighter and freer for the horse than verbally.
While I’m not suggesting that every cue needs its own verbal command, there are
a few basic verbal commands that can enhance a lot. The Kiss or Cluck is chief
among these. This will be particularly useful if you have the sort of horse that tells
on your spurs with his tail.
I use the kiss/cluck to mean two specific things. First and most basically, a soft kiss
is a request for their attention. It might be translated as, “Hey!” Sometimes, a cue
given isn’t responded to simply because the horse’s attention was elsewhere. For
many situations a simple verbal wakeup call will bring the horse’s mind back and
their responsiveness returns.
The second way that I use the kiss is to signify, “Move Your Feet, NOW!” Using the
kiss this way begins when we are teaching basic forward motion during ground
work. Through good timing and escalating purposefully, it can easily be expanded
to any cue when I want the horse to add a little more TRY. This aspect applies in
many situations. If they are hesitant to load in the trailer, kiss. If they aren’t
stretching out into that long trot like they should, kiss. If your lead departures
aren’t crisp, kiss. If the side pass is dragging, kiss. If they aren’t backing as hard or
fast as you’d like, kiss. All it means is “Give me MORE!”
A constant in all of my articles is the importance of timing when training a horse.
Going back to that groundwork and forward motion stuff, I’ll assume you have
some sort of stick/whip/rope/plastic bag on a tree limb apparatus that you use to
help you get more umph and move those feet. In behavioral terms, this phase of
training is called sensitizing. If you consistently kissed to the horse prior to using
that training aid, that kiss would become the thing that happens before what
happens happens. Kiss and then enforce the kiss until the enforcement has been
unnecessary for a while. Horse s are great at anticipation, whether you want them
to be or not, and this time, we want them to be.
I find it particularly helpful to have an escalating series of kisses/clucks in my
toolbox. That means that I kiss once softly for their attention. By softly, I mean
that my horse can hear me, but someone 5-10 ft away wouldn’t. Hearing this, my
horse’s ears should come back to me, even if he was nervous at a show and
nickering to his buddy. He should prepare and know that a cue is coming when he
hears that soft kiss. This means that I should be able to give that cue very, very
softly and it will be recognized and acted upon by the horse, but relatively unseen
by everyone else. Sound helpful?
I might also be in a situation where I simply need more from my horse, and, for
any number of reasons, I just can’t kick him harder. Maybe, I have a horse that
has been soured to leg aids and now reacts by swishing his tail like a windshield
wiper. That type of horse will really benefit from having an alternate way to ask
for more that doesn’t involve spurring harder. Hopefully, I have worked at home
on kissing softer, then a little bit louder, now, a little bit louder now, just a little
bit louder now, hey ay a ay, and my horse knows that he’d better get to moving
some feet, or else I’ll have to Shout! Pick my heels up and SHOUT!!! And again, to
be clear, this way of kissing/clucking can be used in any situation. How I have my
body shaped up, whether on the ground or in the saddle, is what will tell the
horse how to move. The escalating kisses tell him to move, NOW.
Particularly when training young/green horses, I find this use of kissing/clucking
to be invaluable. Frankly, I put it in there so strongly that I almost want the horse
to get anxious if I get a few louder kisses in. This tension is what builds that
motivation. It is a valuable tool to help sharpen up skills and get responses
automatic, without thought, now. There is certainly a time when we need to give
our horses lots of time to think. There are also times when they need to simply
obey and move. All horses could use a little more Right Now in them. Indeed, as
this becomes developed, a double kiss becomes my cue for a lead departure. Not
to indulge in hyperbole, but I wrote this article because your kiss, your kiss, is on
my list, of the best things in life.
Author: Daniel Dauphin, LEC Board Member and Volunteer Writer