Trying to decide where to start in describing what I'm doing has been pretty hard. So many abstract ideas to wrap your head around. Feel, timing, balance and try are all good candidates for where to start too. Maybe it's because those things are all so much more difficult to explain that I decided to start here. This was a hard concept for me and it is in reality the basis for alot of the other stuff that I'll end up talking about at some point.
Everything we do with our horses involves a cue in some form or another. Whether you are communicating through body language, pressure or voice, you have to give your horse some kind of a cue in order to convey what you are asking them to do. In most cases with our horses we are giving some type of cue through pressure. If you pull on the rein, the horse should give and follow that pressure and turn. If you put your leg on your horse the horse should move off of that pressure and give laterally. That's cue.
Signal is like a pre-cue. It's what you do with your body right before you give the cue. It's like when you are about to say something so you take a deep breath before you speak. Horses, because they are incredibly adept at reading and responding to the least little nuances of body language can learn to respond to a signal rather than a cue. So, when I want my horse to back, the signal is I'm taking the slack out of the reins and lifting that heal knot of my bosal off of his chin. (There is also much and more that I am doing with my body but we'll get to that later. ) The horse has the opportunity to respond to that signal that is followed by direct pressure on the bosal which is the cue to back.
Of course, in order to teach your horse to listen to the signal and respond to that signal before the cue even comes takes time and alot of patience. If you don't give the horse the opportunity to respond before the cue comes he'll always wait for the cue. Why not, it's coming anyway, right? The key is release and waiting for your horse to attempt even the smallest little try.
So when teaching a young horse, I might pick up my mecate and take the slack out of the reins. Get my body in a position to make it more obvious what my intention is. Then I wait. And wait. As soon as I feel the horse shift back towards me in the slightest degree I give. Then you do it all over again. Sometimes you may have to help the horse out by going to the cue, especially if he's not searching for the answer. I can't really tell you when you have to do that, or if your horse doesn't respond by 2 minutes or that you count to three and increase the pressure for every count of three until you get a response. That's where feel and timing come in and there is no set guide for that.
Okay, you might be thinking. Great concept, but if you just end up cueing them anyway, what's the point? The point is that with enough time and patience your horse can feel like an extension of your body. When you lightly pick up your reins with just a feather light feel and just set your body back a hair and your horse comes back with you? Dang, that's a good feeling. A horse that responds to really light cues is nice, but one that responds before you even cue them? The best.
Of course, it doesn't always work. It's like if you were sitting in a quiet room with someone and they take a deep breath in preparation to speak you would already be keyed in and listening to what they were about to say. While if you were at a party and the music was playing, somebody was dancing on a table and you were looking over the buffett table you're friend might have to tap you on the shoulder in order to get your attention before speaking. The horse is the same way. The difference is, in what you do with your friend after they have tapped you on the shoulder. If this is your very best friend who means the world to you, you would lean in and maybe look them in the eye to be sure you heard every word they said. If it was that lady that you can't really remember her name but you think it starts with an S you may only listen with half an ear, not even turning from the smokies in BBQ sauce while she continued to tell you whatever she had to say. I'll leave you to decide what kind of relationship you are after with your own horse. Me, I want my horses leaning in and listening intently to what I have to say.
Signal begins to mean something to the horse through consistency and allowing the horse the time to respond and rewarding him immediately when he does. When you begin to wait on your horse for a response it changes everything you do. It makes you stop and breath. It makes you more accutely aware of what your body language is communicating to the horse. Your horse can feel a fly land on his back. Pulling harder to get the response that you need isn't the best way to get something done. It may be necessary sometimes, especially at a party in front of a buffett line, but when you can get them tuned into you the right way, you'll want to see just how little it takes to get it done. That's the good stuff right there.