I come from a strong music background as a performer and an avid listener. The term ‘call and response’ is a very common one in music. Who remembers the nursery rhyme Frere Jacques? Incidently, it appears I’ve been singing the third line of this incorrectly for my entire life! Aside from that, it’s an excellent example of call and response. One half of the choir sings the first line and the other half of the choir sing that line back. I’m sure you’ve heard call and response applied in music more modern than nursery rhymes also, rap is a music style utilising it often.
Why am I writing about music you ask? Think about the concept of call and response in music. Firstly, there’s a ‘call’, then, there IS a response. Importantly it’s usually a willing response, one where the other party is keen to be involved in the song. Transfer this over to your aids, both mounted and unmounted, on your horse. You ask, or call, and your horse has the role to respond. It’s up to us as riders and trainers of our horses to measure if this response is sufficient. We want to give a quiet aid, asking nicely ‘could you do this please’ and receive an enthusiastic response of ‘sure we can!’, not ‘oh, do we have to?’. A sluggish response often involves us giving either a louder aid and ‘shouting’ at our horse or repeating the same aid again and again and not getting any sort of an answer. Now, I’m all for turning the volume up and ‘shouting’ now and then if my ask is not being listened to provided, of course, that I’m asking correctly in the first place and not causing confusion. The crucial thing about giving a louder aid is to ensure the horse has understood that louder aid AND given the right response to it.
It’s just as easy to train a horse to be dull to our aids as it is to train them to be bright to our aids. I’m going to say that again, you can train your horse to be dull to your aids just as easily as training them to be willing to your aids. It’s all down to us and what response we’re prepared to accept. If you apply an aid and receive a ‘meh’ response from your horse and you accept that, you’ve actually just trained him that the response he’s given is all ‘a-ok’ with you! It’s at this point of getting a ‘meh’ response that you, as the trainer, have the opportunity to either accept that behaviour or correct it. The first thing I do is check I’ve been clear with my aid, regardless of being on their back or not. Have I been clear? Have I had my weight distributed correctly? If I’m on the ground have I also been clear? Have I focussed 100% on the horse or am I talking with someone and therefore distracted and unable to give a clear aid. If you’re sure you’re in the right and the horse has not given you the correct response then it’s up to you to correct the behaviour.
Correcting behaviour isn’t necessarily about getting out your best spurs and whips. It may simply be about ‘turning up the volume’. Your ‘call’ or aid as a nice ask may normally be set at 3 out of 10 in terms of volume. Let’s say the horses response is a 1 out of 10 where it should be a ‘let’s go’ 10 out of 10. In this instance I like to turn the volume up and give a stronger, clearer, short aid or a series of quick short aids. The most important thing to remember here is, regardless of being in the saddle or on the ground, is that if this is a forward aid to let the horse travel forward. The very worst thing you can do is give a loud forward aid and then have the horse be reprimanded for that forward energy in some way. Sometimes it’s hard to let that energy surge forward if you’re a little nervous. You can always grab hold of a monkey strap or some mane. It serves absolutely no purpose to put on a 8 out of 10 aid, get a super response and then shut it down. The horse has only learnt it’s going to be pulled up when he bounces forward from this. Let him bounce forward a little, then gently bring him back to where you want him and praise him. The horse simply must also have a release from the aid applied when he does the right thing. When you feel his energy go in the direction you want it to, make sure you release the aid. He learns from your release, not just your aid.
Now you’ve got a better response it’s time to test if it’s worked. We don’t want to leave your horse with the understanding that you apply an 8 out of 10 aid to actually get a response from him! Come back to what you were originally asking and ask at your normal ‘volume’, if you feel the response from your horse is more positive make sure you praise him. If you receive a ‘meh’ response, repeat the stronger aid, again, coming back and asking nicely. The key is to be consistent. As a trainer you can never accept a ‘meh’ response from your horse. Right from getting him out of the paddock to returning him to it, be aware of your aids and the response you get from them. It will take some concentration but I guarantee your horse will be a nicer citizen over time from you being the trainer and the leader for him!