How to School a Horse That Anticipates Cues, Part 2

A continuation of last month’s horse-showing tip on how to school against seasoned and green horses’ tendencies to anticipate.

In schooling for a pattern, we tend to focus on the slower maneuvers for a number of reasons, but one is because trail is a game of mathematics. Journal photo

Note: In Part 1 of this two-part horse-showing series, AQHA Professional Horseman and Team Wrangler Member Ryan Cottingim taught us a couple of ways to defeat anticipation in the horse-show ring. Horses are not always honest when you drop your hand in the show pen, Ryan noted, and that’s just normal. The first thing Ryan covers is to not stress about anticipation but, instead, beat it. Now, here are some specifics on tackling the gate and other slow maneuvers.

The Gate

When I school the gate, I reinforce “Whoa” in four places: the spots in this maneuver where I’m most likely to lose my horse’s attention.

First, when I say “Whoa,” my horses already know that means all four feet are to stay on the ground, they are to be straight through their body, straight through their head and neck, and soft down in the bridle.

I ride up parallel to the gate to where my shoulder is at the standard where you pick up the rope. And I say “Whoa” and softly reinforce that with my cues: I might pick up softly with my hands or go to my feet softly to encourage my horse to get into the bridle. “Whoa” means don’t look, don’t move, just wait for the next signal.

I spend some time there.

When you show, when you drop your rein hand and reach for the gate, your attention moves from your horse to picking up that rope. For that second, that horse knows you are no longer paying attention to him specifically, and it’s an opportunity for him to lose focus and look away. By reinforcing “Whoa” here, I’m schooling against that. I want to keep his focus, because if you lose his focus before you even start a maneuver, it’s hard to gain it back.

Then I back parallel to the gate until my shoulder is even with the standard where the rope is still attached. I back one step at a time. And once again, I reinforce the “Whoa” at that point.

Then I ask him to walk slowly through the gate. When I’m through the gate and parallel to it and my shoulder is again at that standard I reinforce the “Whoa” a third time.

Then I back to the other standard, one step at a time, until my shoulder is at the standard where I will hook the rope back up. And that will be the fourth place I school “Whoa.”

I’m working on that horse’s patience and focus on me.

Winning in the show pen takes hours and hours of preparation in the practice pen. Watch our Showing to Win: Trail DVD and learn more about what it takes to be on top. 

Addressing Anxiety

If you run into problems as you are schooling, especially with slow maneuvers, step out of the maneuver to fix it.

Anxiety is easy to create in those slow maneuvers, especially in the back-through and the gate. I try to have horses come to those maneuvers when they are mentally and physically ready to do slow work.

I might lope circles for 10 minutes in the middle of the arena. Then when I come to the slow maneuver, he’s physically worked down a little, and I want him to see these slow maneuvers as a resting place. It helps take anxiety away.

Let’s say I’m schooling the back-through, and when I say “Whoa,” my horse just wants to prance and move his feet. That’s anxiety. I’ll softly walk him out and totally remove him from it. I’ll lope circles, change leads, do stops and turnarounds. And then I’ll come back to it, and that’s where I let him catch his air.

Or you might find that your horse doesn’t want to settle at a cone, the starting point for hunt seat equitation or horsemanship, because he anticipates going. When you school it, let standing by the cone be the resting point. That takes the anxiety and anticipation out of it.

In all of this, you are working to be more connected with your horse. You are working to get him to not outthink you and to let you be the pilot. That’s the key.

Trail is a complicated event that has many different parts. Learn more about how to train for this particular class with our Showing to Win: Trail DVD.

Slow Thinking

In trail, most people have the highest percentage of penalties on the slow maneuvers. That’s a fact, if you look at score sheets as a whole, individual after individual, horse after horse.

But in schooling for a class, you see people practice lope-overs all the time – and that’s good – but how many people do you see give equal time to the gate? They’ll do lope-overs for 30 minutes and the gate for two.

In schooling for a pattern, we tend to focus on the slower maneuvers for a number of reasons, but one is because trail is a game of mathematics – in penalties and distances – and those slow maneuvers tend to be where most penalties happen.

Another View

Ryan talks specifically of losing efficiency when you go to show, but you can replace “work” with “show” and see the same problems. When you go to do a job on a horse, it’s like showing – your focus has to be off helping him and onto getting a task done where you can trust that he’s going to wait on your cue.

For example, say you are out on the trail and need to open a gate horseback; but in this particular situation, you need to pull it open and hold it open for other riders to go through before you. It’s a problem if your horse anticipates what you want to do and rushes into pushing the gate open the minute you have the latch pulled. Depending on the situation, it could be dangerous.

In that case, you need to school against that tendency, and thinking through it the way Ryan does here can help.