Escalating Cues

During the interview for our June 2005 print feature, "A 10-Maneuver Groundwork Test," Texas clinician Jody Cunningham of Grapeland also discussed escalating cues when working with horses. Here are his tips for bringing pressure to bear on your horse in effective, appropriate ways.



The point, Jody says, is to use as light a cue as possible, no matter the maneuver. The problem: developing the desired response to such lightness. Neither lightness nor a response comes from continually nagging or "picking at" a horse, according to Jody, because the horse soon learns to ignore such things.

Lightness develops when a horse understands that the cue - in other words, the pressure - escalates until he responds, at which point the pressure is released and the horse can relax. But a horse won't grasp that lesson unless his handler or rider is as willing to escalate a cue as he is to release it. The cue should be escalated only if and when a horse fails to respond, and released immediately with a response.

Here's How

For example, when ground-driving a horse in a circle to the left, although Jody holds three to four feet of the lead-rope tail in his right, driving hand, he first smooches to the horse to initiate forward motion.

"I don't know where the term 'smooch' came from," Jody grins, "but if one smooch will do, that's all I use. I don't keep smooching to cue a horse; that makes him dull. A smooch means the horse moves his feet and speeds up, but I must reinforce that idea, at first, for a smooch to have any meaning to my horse."

Should the horse fail to respond, Jody swings the rope tail overhand, toward the horse's hip to reinforce the request for movement. Jody uses the rope tail only if necessary, and how assertively he uses the rope depends on the horse's response, or lack thereof.

"I just swing at the air at first," Jody explains, "but if I must, I touch a little hair, and if I turn the cue volume all the way up to high, I give the horse a little whack on his rump. And I've never yet seen anybody with a 1/2-inch lead line hurt a horse.

"Swinging the rope overhand once is much better than continually picking at a horse. That's what people do because they don't know how to turn up that cue to get the response they want. With the rope, a horse figures out he's supposed to move, and it won't take much cue after that to get the response.

"When I smooch and pick up the tail, that puts pressure on the horse," Jody stresses. "The faster I swing that tail, the more pressure there is. And to have a responsive horse, I must release that pressure the minute my horse responds."

The same principles apply when riding, he adds. Don't nag a horse until he becomes dull to any cue. Instead, ride and use the lightest possible cue, but be consistent in reinforcing it when necessary. Also be consistent in releasing the pressure of the cue immediately when the horse responds.

Just Do Something

Some people, however, have no reason to escalate cues; they're simply afraid of doing something wrong and, as a result, do nothing.

"I appreciate that people don't want to mess up a horse," Jody comments. "But if you're not cruel, don't injure the animal or use some weird mechanical device, I don't think there's much you can do to a horse that I can't fix.

"And consider the term 'wrong,'" Jody continues. "We all know there are better ways to do most things, but if you don't hurt the horse and what you do isn't dangerous to you or him, you're really not wrong - maybe just not as right as you could be. So don't be intimidated by the idea of being wrong. A horse might not forget a really bad instance, but you can get him to forgive you for it. He won't pack a grudge forever, and few people appreciate how forgiving a horse is."

Even when you make a mistake, the situation still can be salvaged somewhat, according to Jody. Perhaps you didn't increase pressure properly on a resistant horse, for example, or maybe you used a bit heavier cue than necessary on a nice-minded, willing horse.

"Anytime you or the horse is confused, just stop. Stand there and relax," Jody explains. "Then see if you can find the horse doing just one tiny thing right. If you ask him to move only his left front foot, and he does - stop and rest. Rub him a little. That reassures him, and that's a reward. After you rest and clear your and the horse's minds, you might go back to whatever you were working on."

Jody further explains that just as the handler makes errors, a horse should be allowed to make mistakes, as well. "Although we protect children and try to keep them from making mistakes, it's the opposite with a horse," Jody points out. "Allow him to make what you consider a mistake, even though he might not understand that it's one at the time. Allow that mistake, then correct the horse - that's the only way he'll learn. If you try constantly to prevent him from making mistakes, your horse becomes bound-up, afraid to move and very unresponsive.

"Don't be afraid to experiment with your horse and see what happens," Jody says. "As long as you don't flog or exhaust a horse, and give him a few rest breaks, you can work on things off and on all day and keep learning."

Jody conducts horsemanship clinics nationwide and also offers videos about ground- and round-pen work and starting colts. Contact Jody Cunningham, RR2, Box 2992, Grapeland, TX 75844; 936-687-4404 or 936-546-6047; jodyc@intrastar.net.