What do we do if our horse breaks gait? Most of us will probably be annoyed, whack the horse and tell him to speed up again. Still, there is something in the mere act of breaking gait that‘s worthwile to think about.

Maybe you know the quote „Let your idea become the horse‘s idea“, which is pretty well known in horsemanship circles. We not only want our horse to follow the feel and understand the aids. We want him to understand what our focus and our intention is

Say, we are heading straight in the direction of a cone. The horse understands that he should not swerve left or right but stay straight - he accepts the limits we set with the reins and the legs. At the cone we let him rest some time. If we repeat that several times, in the end our horse will aim straight for the cone with no need for us to restrict or guide him. He understood our idea and our focus. 
Imagine what a subtle communication can be possible if we direct our horse only with our thoughts and focus and wouldn‘t have to use physical aids anymore. 

engaging the horse's head, beingwithorses blog
It's all about the horse's head. Photo: Marlies
And there we are with the breaking gait problem. My project horse drew my attention to it some weeks ago. I wanted him to come down to a trot from the canter (working at liberty), smoothly and softly. I let go of my breath, let my energy sink to the ground, the horse slowed down falling on his forehand and jolted in the trot. Not exactly what I imagined the transition to be. I asked him to canter again. This time he broke gait on his own - but he did it elegantly and without using his front end to slow down.

So there is quite a difference between the two transitions. The reason for the different quality lies in the horse's head. The first time I surprised him with my asking to slow down. He obeyed but he wasn't prepared well and also not very attentive. My idea wasn't his idea. The second time though, slowing down was his idea and he performed it accordingly.

This is another example why I am sort of fanatic about not only training the horse's body but also his mind. If the horse engages his mind and tries to find out what we want, the way he exerts his body will become healthier for him. Also, together we can achieve more - instead of me telling him and him complying. 

This is how I fixed the canter-trot-transition: I always asked him to slow down at the same spot. This helped him to recognize a pattern and to tune into it mentally. Additionally, I did not insist on him making the transition within a second or two but I let him find his way down to the trot. That helped a lot to soothe the transition.

In general, the gelding needs to be with me mentally if I want a trot or canter that consists of more then three dragging steps. If his mind is absent, I would have to ask for every single step (which I don't). That is no basis for work - and has nothing to do with good horsemanship. 

So it's my job to help him stay attentive and concentrated. Therefore I will not ask for 20 laps at once and nag him with the stick in order to prevent him from breaking gait.

He needs to know that there is something in it for him too. If he does a good job, I'll allow him to come in to me and rest. This way I make sure that he likes coming to me because with me in the middle of the circle there is peace and relaxation.

Buck Brannaman Clinics are fun. Especially, when he states his opinion in a very direct and pointed way - like in Cologne over a year ago. A participant of the clinic had asked what he thinks of voice cues. Not a lot. He doesn‘t use them because he doesn‘t want other people to be able to communicate with his horse. And because they annoy the horse. 

What he basically said was: Go to a show ring, ride around saying "cluck, cluck, cluck" and then see how many horses you can get swishing their tails and pinning their ears. For him, this habit is like tourette

What I find difficult about voice cues: There are often used without teaching the horse what they mean in the first place. So the human simply orders „stay still“ or „pick up that foot“ assuming the horse knows what he wants. Of course, the human's body language underlines the voice cue and thanks to that the horse usually figures out what the human wants. But if I need body language to help with the voice cue, I can skip the voice cue as well. Even worse: It doesn‘t cross some people‘s mind that the horse could not be able to understand new voice cues. They apply them and expect the horse to obey naturally. Well, that's not going to work!

voice cues, being with horses blog
Serenity. Silence. Photo: Nadja

I made that mistake myself. I wanted to drive my horse from the ground with two long reins. As I am directly behind him where he cannot see me and my body language, I tried to establish the voice cue „move out“ to signal him to start moving. I started standing next to him to help him link the cue and my body language. He managed that quite well. So I tried from behind him and failed. The cue hadn‘t been established yet. I set the horse up for failure. 

Then, there is people who talk to their horse in whole sentences and incessantly believing the horse understands every word they utter. „Can‘t you just stand still for one moment?“ „Can‘t you just get yourself together now?“ I am sure the horse senses the emotions that come with these words - in these cases anger and impatience. But just because he knows that the human is in a bad mood, does not mean he can read the human‘s thoughts and therefore comply to his wishes. 

Sometimes I talk to my project horse and other horses in whole sentences too. If I do because I am not happy with a horse‘s behavior („can you for once stop pulling on that rope?“) I correct the horse at the same time. I don't rely on the voice cue
I also talk to the horse before or during a certrain maneover but not to tell him what (exept from driving from the ground) to do or expecting him to understand what I am saying. Talking just helps me to stay focused and position my body in a way that underlines what I am asking from the horse. So I basically talk to myself not to the horse. Honestly, I don‘t like that habit too much and am trying to reduce my comments as much as possible.  

In general, I prefer the moments when horse and human become quiet (usually the horse already is). Those are the most harmonious ones to me. When communication is non-verbal. You share time, space and focus with the horse in mutal agreement. Unison without words. I find that if we humans become as still as the horse, it brings us closer together. 

PS: In this video Warwick Schiller explains the difference between horses and pigs (and yes it is related to language).