How to School a Horse that Anticipates Cues, Part 1

Horse-Showing Tip: Learn how to school against seasoned and green horses’ tendencies to anticipate.

Horses are not always completely honest when you drop your hand to show in the show pen, and that’s just normal. For those of us who have shown a lot, it should never be a surprise. Your horse stops early, or he breaks gait, or he lopes off before you ask him to.

It happens to every rider, whether you are a novice in your first out or a seasoned professional, and it happens for a number of reasons. It is not unusual to have your best ride in the practice pen right before you go show.

I also think of it as “losing efficiency.” By that I mean if you are practicing at 100 percent efficient, when you head to the show pen, automatically your efficiency = or correctness - drops to 75 or 80 percent. It’s just due to that horse’s natural tendency to anticipate his rider, to lose focus, be lazy or get anxious when you drop your hand to show, and you can’t help him like you can when you practice. For whatever reason, he’s not waiting on you but taking control from you; that’s not correct, and it will affect your performance.

Obviously, there are great horses out there that maintain their efficiency in a performance, and that’s why they’re great. Physically, they are talented above and beyond, and mentally, they don’t lose their efficiency. They stay honest.

You have to go in understanding that it happens, and you school for where and how you think it might happen. It’s all about getting that horse’s mind back on the rider and what you’re asking, and not thinking about what’s going to happen next.

When I school for a pattern, everything I do points the horse toward being quiet, calm and relaxed. I think about trying to do the opposite of what he wants to do, or what he anticipates doing.

I’ll give you some examples of how it might look in schooling for trail, but you can apply these ideas to any class, from showmanship to western riding or ranch riding.

Keep in mind, most of this really pertains to that seasoned show horse, although a green horse can anticipate you, too. You do have to modify what you do for each individual horse.

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When horses get on the dirt in the space from one obstacle to another, they know something is going to happen and they start guessing: Are you going to lope off? Walk? Stop?

They are smart. If a pattern calls for a trot series, more times than not, they are thinking “lope off,” because 80 percent of the time, that’s what you do after a trot.

So when I am schooling that pattern before I show it, I never lope off at that spot. In fact, I might not perform a lope off anywhere it is actually called for in that pattern because my horse is going to anticipate that when I go to show it.

On a seasoned horse, I know I can lope him off from the trot – we’ve done that in our training. I’m more worried about him anticipating that gait transition. So I focus my schooling on preventing that: I’ll trot the series and then stop and settle for a few moments. Or I’ll walk and then lope off. Anything but what the pattern calls for in that spot: a lope departure from the trot.

I don’t want that horse to try to outthink me, I want him to wait on me and be patient. When I go to show, he has never been asked to lope off from that trot series, so when I do ask for it, most likely he’ll be soft in his trot, relaxed, confident, tuned in to me.

Of course, there are situations where I will bend that rule - with a green horse or a client who needs that practice. But this is what I’d do with a seasoned horse that I think will anticipate what’s coming up.

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A seasoned horse will tend to anticipate the stop in the chute for a back-through. To offset that in schooling, I might trot, lope or walk through a back-through multiple times without stopping.

For a stop to be very smooth and clean and crisp, yes, your horse must be responsive when you ask for it. At the same time, he shouldn’t slow his rhythm and adjust his stride before you say “Whoa.” If a horse sets up for a stop before the rider asks him to, he will not stop as well.

Again, I have worked on that stop outside of this pattern so I know he’s going to stop correctly: crisp, all four feet on the ground, stable, head softly down in the bridle, waiting for the next cue.

So in schooling it, I don’t have to lope in there 10 times and stop. If I do that, I assure you, when I drop my hand to go show and lope in there for the 11th time to stop, my horse is going to start to shut down way before I get into the chute, and I’ve increased my chances of not stopping well and of hitting a pole. In schooling, I just ride through it.

To work on the back-through itself, I want to completely break up that maneuver into multiple pieces from start to finish. It’s about getting that horse tuned in to my signal and my cue, reminding him to be patient and not get ahead of me.

Here’s what I would do for a simple L back-through.

I start by asking for one back step at a time, stopping and settling in between each step. In my cues, I say “Back” and cluck once and that equals one step back – a diagonal pair, one front foot and one back foot together. And stop. And then I do that sequence again.

When I get to the point where my inside foot is at the inside corner of the back-through, I change the maneuver: I isolate his hindquarters from his shoulders. I hold with my inside leg and press his hip around the corner with my outside leg in just two small steps. And then pause. At that point, his hindquarters are in the center of the second half of the L.

And I change the maneuver again: I isolate his shoulders from his hindquarters and ask his shoulders to go up and into the corner. I softly ask with my hand, my eyes look up into the corner, and I move his shoulders up and over, not backwards. I don’t want his feet to go backward at all at this point. And I pause again.

The horse knows when he turns that corner that he’s going to back up, and that’s where I want to reinforce the wait-on-my-cue in schooling. At each point where I pause, for a horse that really anticipates the back-through, I might sit there for two minutes or more.

Then I back one step at a time, stopping in between each step, just as we did at first.

If at any point he anticipates me and backs more than one step, I’ll softly go forward one step and stop and settle, then ask for that back step again.

It feels like you’re not schooling the back-through, but you are: You are breaking it up in the horse’s mind so he won’t rush through it. You are working on undoing what your horse might anticipate doing.

Yes, to plus that maneuver, it needs to be a very smooth, fluid motion from start to finish, with no ticks or break of gait.

But that’s where I separate practicing a maneuver at home from schooling a maneuver before showing. You have to trust your work at home. Here, you are reinforcing that he needs to wait on you for everything. If he does that, you increase the odds of plussing that back-through in the pen.