This simple exercise teaches the horse to be patient and to stay focused on the trainer’s aids. It teaches her that an aid repeated until it is answered will be rewarded by ceasing the aid and praising the horse. Ask often, demand little or nothing, reward generously. This exercise also begins the process of teaching the horse to understand the whip and not fear it. Practicing next to a fence on soft grass is best, because grass becomes the reward when she is in the bow position. Watch my video below.
1. Lead, halt, stand still. I start by leading Weltregentrin (my 5-year-old Hanoverian mare) in a snaffle bridle with the reins over her neck along a wall or fence, which helps to keep her straight. I teach her to halt while I stand at her shoulder facing in the same direction with my right hand holding the reins at the withers. I use the word “whoa” or any similar word (just be consistent) slightly before I ask her to halt. I am training her to follow my core, so the word “whoa” and the half halts I make with my hand can eventually be taken out.
In the beginning, I ask for halt only for a moment, then walk forward quickly enough to be the leader of the depart. Horses like to move their feet, so walking is a reward in itself. I repeat this until she stands for a short time, relaxed and with a focus on me. I finish the reward by taking her back to the stable where she feels safe. I don’t go to the next step until this is easy for her. A nervous horse can’t learn.
2. Tap, repeat and make an important connection. When the horse stands with confidence and focus, I bend at my core and bow my head slightly. Using the blunt end of my whip, I tap just below the knee. If she does not pick up her leg straight away, I do not tap harder. If she does not pick up her leg in the first 10 minutes, I put her back in the stable and bring her out later in the day to ask again.
Next, I repeat steps one and two exactly as I did before, even the way I bend at my core and bow my head because, later on, the horse will associate and respond to the simple bowing of my head as a cue for the bow. Eventually, as I tap, she picks up her leg. It is only for a moment, but it is enough for the day. I praise her and let her retire to the comfort of her stable. I do not ask the question again that day.
Typically, within days, the horse comes to the wall and stands with great enthusiasm, because she knows she’s going to get a sugar cube or a word of praise, and she knows how she’s going to get it! The horse has learned how to get a reward. For the trainer, it seems a slow process, but the horse has discovered that learning can be fun. The training will go faster once she learns this concept. Remember, the horse is not learning how to do this, she is learning the cue to do this, therefore, improving the communication skills between horse and trainer.
3. Hold the leg. Next, the horse learns to hold her leg bent in the air so long as the blunt end of whip is touching it. If she finds this frustrating, she may demonstrate something else you have taught her, thinking that if she tries everything she knows, she might just get that treat. The horse is trying to find the answer through trial and error. She is interested in this work!
4. Progress to the bow. I find the rein-back feeling in the reins, while she keeps her knee bent. Slowly, I ask her to come down with a bent leg until, inch-by-inch, she is in the bow position. This may take the most time to teach. Each time you make progress, quit for the day. The horse must trust that you will not ask too much too soon.
5. Reward generously. I release and let her return to the starting position, giving sugar and lots of praise.