Training Theory: Cues

What is a A Cue? Anything said or done that is followed by a specific action. A hint, intimation or guiding suggestion. Anything that excites to action. A stimulus.

Horses have innate understanding of certain visual or auditory cues in their environment. They are prepared to see danger and react immediately. Natural Horsemanship training takes advantage of their instinctive reactions to environmental cues and shapes it into new actions that suit our own needs.

In our training process, horses generally cue to visual stimuli first. Therefore your body language and your use of your hands is the first thing they notice. They stay away from your threatening stance. They avoid a swinging rope. They learn to come to a bucket.

Pairing Cues
By pairing visual cues with predictable outcomes, they learn to anticipate and react in a predictable manner. ie: When you feed grain from a vehicle, he learns to come toward the vehicle when he sees it. If those visual cues are also paired with other situational stimuli such as your calling him from the pasture, he will begin to come to the call.

Verbal Comprehension
My mother used to tell me , “It is not what you say but how you say it.” She was, of course explaining to me that no matter how “nice” my choice of words, my tone, inflection, demeanor would expose the true unpleasant nature of my thoughts. I used that premise when I named an obnoxious Shetland pony Please when what I wanted to name her was Damnit. When I said ,” Whoa, Please”, my tone meant , “Whoa Damnit!”

Animals that we train using voice commands are, obviously, not native English speakers. They hear how you say something, not what you say. They hear mostly vowels, syllables, and intensity. Therefore, “whoa”, “go”, and “no” are nearly identical to a horse though much different in meaning to us.

Anytime you can use cues that are unique in syllables, vowels and intensity from any other word, your job will be easier. In the case of “whoa” vs. “hoe” it really matters not. However, if you choose “whoa” to mean stop and stand, but you are in the habit of saying, “No” or “go” during your sessions and expecting an outcome other than stop and stand, you should examine your choice of verbiage.

Many English instructors use TEE-ROTT for the word trot. It is longer (has two syllables), so is easier to distinguish from most other cues. And it is frequently said in a lilting tone that is a little musical, distinguishing it from Canter, which is more commanding. My friend says, “Teeeee-rott” (with her tone rising on the “tee” and falling on the “rott”). I always think it sounds like “Cheeeeer up”. Either way, the horse understands it just fine.

Sequencing Cues
This all seems pretty basic. But the sequence in which you offer cues to him is important as well. If you say a word simultaneously with a visible action, he gradually becomes aware that the word and the action are the same. See: Paired Cues. The word becomes a substitute for the previous visual cue. If you offer a physical cue simultaneously with the visual and verbal (such as touching him in a certain way with your leg), he begins to see the relationship of one cue to the next.

Generally I teach visual, verbal, then physical cues in that sequence. And I continually refine earlier cues into more precise outcomes. (see Shaping) It is easier for a horse (or a dog) to learn most basic ground exercises using hand signals than verbal cues. This allows you to “wow” your friends and relatives with a horse who works on hand signals alone when the truth of the matter is that he might not work at all using verbal requests. You look like a genius in half the time.

In the case of the colt pictured above, every time I jiggled his lead rope he took a step back. I began offering the finger cue with the jiggle, and soon he would back up without a word or a jiggle: just a wagging finger. What a boy! Of course, he must progress further with the use of the verbal request to “Back” so that he understands it when we mount and request that action when no jiggle is possible and no finger can be seen.

Does it matter what action cues what reaction? Yes and no.

Yes: Looking at him like you are ready to eat him will win you no friends. He is afraid of that body language, so, unless you want him to move away, it is not good.

No: It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what words you use so long as your pronunciation and tone are consistent and the words do not rhyme.

So, does it matter if you say “Whoa” or “Stand” to mean stop and don’t move? No. It doesn’t matter as long as you use it consistently for the same performance.

Does it matter if you cluck or kiss? Yes, if you expect a different gait for each sound. No, if you expect only one response – speed up. However, the difference between the sounds is hard to distinguish, so I use them interchangeably for the “speed up” response, much to the chagrin of my friend who uses them for different gaits.

Does it matter if you say, Walk on”, “Trot”, “Canter”? Not if you prefer, “OK”, “Let’s go” or “Giddy up”. How about “Whoa” or “Stand”.

For his education, it is completely irrelevant what cues you use. He only needs them to be consistent across all circumstances and avoid rhyming.

Are there general conventions used in the world of horse training?
But English riding and Western riding have different verbiage.
German is different than Chinese.
You are different from Mary Jane.
If you believe that a horse will be used by some general audience who will use some standard phrases or cues, by all means use them.
But there is no difference to the horse.

We expect our handling cues to be subtle and intuitive. What starts as a series of overly-dramatic motions and utterances for training purposes, through the process of anticipation and Shaping, becomes fewer and fewer cues and more and more quiet until a series of 4 or 5 cues becomes one subtle request.

Economy of Words
In the case of “whoa” and “Stand”, it is a difference in the English vs Western discipline, but the horse can learn either one.

In my personal training practice, my use of “Whoa” grows out of his introduction to that term from the very beginning during his lunging. He learned then that “Whoa” means Stop and Stand Still. When he is “dancing” during grooming, I say, “whoa” and expect a statue. When his feet are trimmed, whoa means stand there. When I drop his lead rope and walk off, I say,”whoa” to indicate he should not follow but remain as a dog performs a “stay” command. When I mount, if he indicates he might walk off, “Whoa” ends all doubt.

Why use another word for the same action? It’s all a matter of your own style. Horse training should be fun. And, as I have said on many occasions, “There is more than one way to skin a cat.” Just do it consistently.

Horse training can be dangerous. Not all methods work on all horses. Instruction presented here is not meant to be prescriptive in nature, and takes no responsibility for the welfare of any animal or person using our methods.

Please note that any advice given on is neither veterinary nor prescriptive in nature but offered only as an introduction to this topic.

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