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Teaching Voice Commands

By: Galadriel Billington

6:07PM Apr 10, 2004

I find voice commands an essential part of training a horse. In many disciplines, you are eventually expected to ride your horse subtly, with no voice at all, but I think that as a basic training method they are useful and very clear to the horse.

With any horse I am training, I begin with ground work. Even if the horse already knows some commands, I prefer to start over. The cues he knows may not be the same as the ones I give. By starting over, I can find out what the horse does know and move on--or I can find that something essential has been left out, and teach it as I go along. (For the purposes of this article I am going to assume that this is a horse who is being trained to ride; he already knows how to lead.)

To teach a horse to respond to a cue, you must cue, put him in a situation where he performs that response, and reward. So, for example, to teach a horse the command "walk," you should
  1. say "walk"
  2. cause the horse to walk by tugging gently forward on the lead rope and walking off yourself
  3. reward the horse when he walks.
When teaching these voice commands, I use cues in this order: the command I am teaching (for example, "walk"), the lead rope attached to the halter (for example, a gentle tug forwards), then my body (for example, leading off at a walk). Voice, lead, body. The horse will come to recognize the voice command and associate it with the requested movement, so eventually I will not need to use the lead or body language, just my voice.

Start at the very beginning: the horse needs to know how to whoa. I usually teach "walk" and "whoa" at the same time. You'll need to be prepared with some form of reward; pet him, give him a treat, tell him he's a good horse--whatever he associates with a reward. I usually carry a lot of treats and use them as a reward for instant response; otherwise I just pet, or say "good boy."

I ask the horse for a walk: Say "walk" first, then cue with the lead line and begin to lead away. Reward him for walking! The whole time you're walking, ask for the walk verbally, and reward him. "Walk. Good boy. Walk. Good boy." He's still doing what you asked of him, so continue to reward him :) I usually walk about one quarter to one-half of an arena.

Now ask for a stop. Say "whoa," then tug backwards gently with the lead line and stop walking. Reward him if he stops. (If not, ask again--the whole sequence: voice, lead, body.)

As he's learning, don't expect him to hold still for too long; try to whoa for only a few seconds and then move on; it should look to him as if every movement he makes (or doesn't make) is your idea, not his. If you can tell that he is going to move off, try to ask him to walk before he takes a step, or whoa him again to make sure he doesn't move on his own.

Now, when he is fully whoa'd, ask him to move forward again; "walk," lead rope tug, walk off. Walk whatever distance you feel is right, then ask for the whoa again. In the first session, I would repeat this sequence about 10 times.

By your second session, the horse may be beginning to catch on, or it may take 3 or 5 sessions. While in the session, if the horse begins to demonstrate understanding, then stop the session immediately. What you are looking for is for the horse to respond to your voice command before you have a chance to use the lead rope. If you say "whoa" and you get an immediate stop, give him a handful of treats, make much of him, and put him away. Similarly with "walk"; if he begins to move on before you ask with the lead, then stop right away, reward him greatly, and let him be done for the day.

The first several sessions where he responds correctly right away should be handled this way. After that, he "knows" the command. You can expect him to do it when you ask, and reward him for it, but he's "got" it so you don't need to stop right away when he does it right. You will probably want to ask him to perform once or twice any time you handle him, to re-inforce the command.

Once the horse knows "whoa" and "walk," you can teach "back" and "trot" in the same manner:

For trot, say, "trot," tug forward gently with the lead, and jog off. It may take him a second to follow you, especially if he has been well-trained to lead: "But I'm not SUPPOSED to run off when I'm being led!" Be sure he understands that you are *asking* him to trot, and that he should do this only when you request it. Voice, lead, body. Once I get the trot, I usually trot for only a few steps before asking for a walk again. For the walk, you say, "walk," tug backwards gently with the lead, and slow down yourself.

Caution: DO NOT say "whoa" at this point. You want him to return to a walk from the trot. "Whoa" means stop, not slow down. If you use "whoa" to mean slow down, then when you *do* want a whoa, you may not get it. Always use the precise voice command for the response that you want.

Again, you'll want to spend several sessions going from "walk" to "trot" and back again (throw in a few whoa's just to keep it interesting); you'll know that he's got it when he responds to your voice before you use the lead to back it up. And again, once he demonstrates understanding, end the session right away to reward him.

To teach "back," you may wish to use an additional cue. Some horses will back well from the halt, with a backwards tug on the lead line. Some will respond better to a gentle tapping in the center of the chest. Once you know what your horse prefers, then you will want to use it in your ground training; voice, cue, body. Face your horse from the front, say, "back," tap or tug, and walk forwards toward him. This concept is a little more difficult for the horse, and may take a little longer to figure out just what you want. Be sure to reward him well when he performs correctly.

Backing is a little tough on a horse (it's not very natural to them) so you should probably work on the other commands that he knows for a few minutes between requests. I would ask for a back about 5 times a session, but no more.

Once he knows all of these voice commands and can respond to them promptly, you can begin to vary his routine. I typically practice voice commands with my horses when I am leading them, as we are cooling down after working. We will do things like trot, halt, back, trot; or trot, walk, whoa, back, whoa, walk, trot.

Associated topics:
  • Giving to pressure is not instinctual for a horse; you can also use these methods to teach "move over" on the ground. This is useful while handling, grooming, shoeing, etc, but also when using leg aids in the saddle.
  • I have a description of the steps for teaching a horse to "stand" (stand still) and to stand still for mounting.
  • Once a horse understands voice commands very well, I begin to transfer them to under-saddle voice commands. I will use the voice commands to teach leg and seat aids under saddle, much as I used the lead line to teach the voice command initially. Now, instead of "voice, lead, body," I will use "leg/seat aid, voice" and possibly a handler on the ground to help demonstrate to the horse what I am requesting. As the horse becomes accustomed to the leg and seat aids, he will begin to respond as soon as they are used. I will use my voice less and less, until it is unnecessary.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.