BY GIGI NUTTER
The Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania provided an idyllic setting for my childhood. My parents opened a trail riding business in the 1940’s to support local, tourist resorts and the whole family worked at the stable. I loved being with the horses and can still hear the kicking, squealing and pawing sounds as we arrived for the morning feeding. My Father would unlatch the gate and bellow, “I AM HERE NOW!” and the horses would immediately quiet. It was as if they stood at attention. To a five year-old child, that kind of control was amazing.
Looking back, I know he did it as much for theatrical effect as anything but it impressed upon me that horse’s behavior could be changed through verbal commands. In the decades since, I have made ever-increasing use of voice commands in my dressage training and instruction. Use of the voice aid has, at best, been diminished in importance. At worst, it is dismissed as improper training or “not classical.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Today, asking most dressage riders to list the “natural” aids results in the response, “leg, seat (weight) and hand.” Francois Robichon de le Gueriniere, one of the original Masters of dressage, expressly lists “voice commands” as an aid to train the horse. Similarly, de Pluvinel, Steinbrecht, Decarpentry, Watjen, Podhajsky and Klimke all refer to the voice as a training aid. Even Xenophon referred to the use of the “chirrup” and “cluck” over two thousand years ago along with a clear inference to the concept of associative learning.
While many of the old masters mention voice commands, none devote more than a few paragraphs to the subject. Concepts related to correct leg, seat and hand usage are far more difficult to grasp than simple voice commands and inevitably get a more detailed treatment in great works of dressage literature. Still, they all describe verbal commands and advocated their correct use.
I will also mention that books written by trainers working with horses at liberty take more time to detail the proper use of voice commands. One good example is Classical Circus Equitation by H.J Lijsen and Sylvia Stanier. This is only logical since these trainers work unmounted. The fact remains that horses are horses regardless of discipline and they all possess the same biological and mental processes. Trainers of all disciplines should use any method that works within the horse’s intrinsic nature.
Using Voice Aids
Childhood instructors taught me basic commands to develop ground manners in the young horse. Saying the word “Whoa” or “Halt” while applying rearward pressure on the halter associated a sound with a tactile sensation. Over time, the verbal command becomes unnecessary and the youngster responded to halter pressure alone. I learned early that teaching a young horse the correct response to the words “stand” and “over” was a basic part of establishing the ground manners necessary for safe handling by grooms, farriers and veterinarians.
Voice aids became an area of greater interest after suffering a lumbar injury following a fall.
Once back on my feet, I could longe the three horses in training but my riding was very limited for weeks. I began to experiment with variations on standard “walk, trot, canter” voice commands. I added the word “forward” to their vocabulary to get more activity within the gait. The word “forward” was spoken as two distinct syllables and a strong tone as “FOR-WARD.” The syllables were spoken in rhythm with the beat of the gait. The results were impressive. The phrase “AND BACK” was trained to mean slow down. Using this method, I was able to create an alert horse performing transitions within the gait.
Building upon the success of transitions on the longe, I began to affect the cadence of the trot by using my voice as a metronome and changing the length of the word as it was enunciated. “Trot, trot, trot” at two words per second became “trot…..trot…..trot” at one word per second. To promote longer strides, the change in the cadence of my voice was combined with the gentle driving aid of a raised longe whip. The tone of my voice was brisk and encouraging. When I wanted to bring the stride back, I lowered the whip, lowered my voice and said “AND BACK.”
Another example involved working turns-on-the-forehand from the ground. The word “OV-ER” was associated with movement away from the whip. Again, the word was spoken as two syllables in rhythm with the footfalls of the inner hind leg. Eventually, I was able to perform the movement without actually touching the horse with the whip. This technique was equally successful with leg-yields in-hand. I also used the word “OV-ER” to prevent horses from drifting in on a circle while longeing.
Once healed enough to begin riding, I started using verbal commands with corresponding leg and seat aids with great success. In particular, one young mare angrily resisted leg aids prior to my accident. Using the “FOR-WARD” and “AND BACK” commands with very little leg resulted in improved performance without the typical confrontation. As she associated the voice and leg aids, I gradually reduced the reliance on the verbal commands. Eventually, she lengthened her stride using leg aids alone.
Without exception, the horses trained using voice aids during groundwork remembered the commands and responded correctly under saddle. Transitions within gaits, leg-yields, turns-on the-forehand and lengthenings were all performed using both voice and associated tactile aids. The horses quickly transitioned to reliance on leg and seat aids with only occasional use of a supporting voice command. Clearly, the horses learned correct responses quicker and with less confusion due to their understanding of the voice commands from the groundwork.
Use while teaching
The use of verbal commands is just as effective while instructing students. Aside from teaching a rider to use the same methods previously described, I use voice aids to help riders and horses find correct cadence and develop timing. I use the rhythmic “trot…trot…trot” to establish a tempo and even horses unfamiliar with voice commands seem to benefit from the metronome effect.
A lethargic horse always responds to a forceful “FORWARD!” spoken in a harsh tone. I use this voice aid when the student’s leg aids are slow or inadequate. Introducing riders and horses to tempi changes is another opportunity to facilitate successful attempts with voice commands. Simple counting of the sequence of changes helps riders correctly time the aids. Horses become familiar with the variation in the tone and pitch of my voice when the flying change should occur. I simply match the rhythm of my voice to the horse’s canter and call “one…two…three FOUR!…two…two…three…FOUR!” A long history of success with this method leads me to believe that horse and rider benefit equally from the supporting voice aids.
The most common voice aid for many riders is the “Good Boy/Girl” following the horse’s proper response to an aid. This positive reinforcement of correct performance relaxes the horse’s mind and body. It is the tone of your voice that reassures the horse that he has responded correctly, not the specific word. Associating the verbal praise with a pat or stroke results in increased confidence and trust. Over time, the pat alone will accomplish the same result. Personally, I use a deep, forceful growl to indicate my disapproval of certain behavior. On trained horses that have associated this sound to a correction using whip or spur, the voice aid alone will achieve the desired result in many cases.
The first and greatest misconception regarding voice aids is the perception that the horse has any level of language skill. I believe that horses can learn their name but that is about where the cognitive skill ends. Verbal commands are simply sounds associated with a command, reaction or rhythm. If consistent use of the words “Good Boy” were followed by a lashing with the whip, the horse would react in fear every time the phase was uttered. Similarly, if “Good Boy” were spoken in a loud, angry tone the results would be the same.
Therefore, since horses do not truly understand English, French or German, there is no reason to carry on an extended, one-way conversation while riding. It may prove therapeutic to the rider but the horse will become desensitized to the noise and voice aids will loose their effectiveness. The same hold true for clucks and chirps. Just as constant poking with the spur dulls the usefulness of the aid, so does endless clucking.
While horses do not understand human “language,” they do learn to respond to voice commands in the trainer’s tongue. I have worked with numerous imported horses that were taught to longe in Germany. Do not expect perfect performance if you use the words “trot” and “canter” if the horse was taught to respond to “trab” and “gallop.” When pronounced during longe work, the German “trab” is frequently pronounced “tee-rab” which sounds very little like the English “trr-ot.” Therefore, some re-education of word associations may be necessary.
Initially, voice aids will be louder and sharper than desired. Their intensity should subside with understanding. Just as with any aid, the most refined voice commands can be shared between horse and rider in near silence. Still, any verbal command that can be heard by other riders or horses is distracting.
I attribute some of the reluctance to use voice aids as an overreaction to competition rules that require a rider to remain silent during a dressage test. This logic does not stand up to scrutiny since there is a very long list of items that are not permitted in the show ring but are invaluable as training tools.
The goal of dressage is to create a horse that is an extension of the rider’s body and mind. The only aids used in the classically trained horse are the leg, seat and hands. These aids are used with such refinement that they are invisible to the observer. To reach this level of training requires the use of supporting aids such as the whip, spurs and the voice. The use of these supporting aids is greater at the early stages of training. The goal (rarely achieved) is to eliminate their use all together.
I recommend that all trainers study and experiment with voice aids. They are the least used and least understood natural aids. Spanish Riding School Oberbereiter, Hans Handler wrote this of the aids, “The aids make it possible for the rider to communicate with his mount, to “tell” it what it is supposed to do. To this end, the rider appeals to three separate senses: sight and hearing, both routes to the horse’s mind, and touch, the essential medium of this “language.” I wholeheartedly agree.
Suggested reading on the subject of using the voice as an aid:
- The Gymnasium of the Horse by Gustav Steinbrecht
- Dressage Riding by Richard L. Watjen
- Classical Circus Equitation by H.J. Lijsen and Sylvia Stanier
- The Complete Training of Horse and Rider by Alois Podhajsky
- School of Horsemanship by Francios Robichon de la Gueriniere
- Academic Equitation by General Decarpentry
- Basic Training of the Young Horse by Reiner Klimke
- The Spanish Riding School by Hans Handler
- The Art of Horsemanship by Xenophon
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