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Because Your Kiss is On My List

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

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