In training and riding horses one of the single most frustrating things can be anticipation. When you watch a skillfully executed pattern, it seems as though the horse is doing it all on its own and the rider is just a passenger, but that is far from the truth.
When it looks easy, when it looks like there are no cues, when it looks like the communication between horse and rider is merely telepathic, that’s when you know there is zero anticipation.
As a rider, half of the time you are asking your horse to do something, and often, the other half of the time you are correcting them for jumping the gun. Horses love patterns, in the sense they like to know what comes next, and if they so much as think they know they will jump to the end. Either to be done with it, or because they are impatient.
It is so frustrating, to have a horse constantly jump a step ahead. It’s like someone who constantly cuts you off in a conversation, never letting you get your fully formed thought out.
How to Deal With Anticipation
First and foremost, we need to work on our own mindset. The best news any rider can get is that whatever issue they are having with their horse is their own doing. This is great news because rider issues are a million times easier to fix than horse issues. Although generally riders don’t like to hear it, because often it’s interpreted as “it’s your fault” really it should be taken as “its in your power to change”.
It took me many, many, many years to understand and then to apply this concept to my own riding. To truly feel that if an issue was my own doing, that just meant it would be easier to solve, changed totally how I feel about encountering issues with my horses.
We should also be carful not to forget that anticipation is not completely a negative trait. It means our horse is trying to find the right answer, it is a behaviour that need correcting yes, but try and keep in mind it is not malicious in nature.
Now although anticipation can be the horse’s responsibility, usually it is caused by a training program that is too repetitive, or our own fixation on obtaining a certain goal. Sometimes we don’t realize what percentage of time we actually spend on certain tasks.
How to Correct Anticipation
First, what is the horse anticipating? Is it the correction, or the cue? A horse who anticipates going faster, a lot of the time is one that is actually anticipating the correction. This usually happens if 1) the horse has been over corrected in the past (eg. hard use of leg aids with poor timing etc) or 2) a horse that was consistently told to go faster over a long period of time. This is a fear based response. I have had clients who have ex-gymkhana horses say their horse loves to run, but often it because that is the only way the horse ever got a release.
If a horse is anticipating a cue, eg. they feel you gearing up to lope and don’t wait for the leg/voice etc. this is a horse anticipating the cue because the circumstances seem to lead them to the conclusion of what is to come.
Correcting, Correction Anticipation
The best way to do this, is to stop asking them to do the thing they are anticipating for awhile, and then begin to reintroduce the object of their anticipating slowly back into the training program. Alternatively you can also break up the thing they are anticipating into chunks. For example if your horse anticipates loping and wants to continue loping and is difficult to stop, you would be better off doing a lot of lope departures and stops, and not let the horse lope for long periods of time.
However if the horse is only anticipating the lope departure, then that could be a sign those have been over done. It might be a good idea to lope off and stay at the lope for awhile and do fewer departures for a few sessions.
If a horse is anticipating a correction, as I said earlier it could be coming from a place of fear. If the horse has been overly corrected or a lot of intimidation has been used then this behaviour could be more difficult to fix. Having a set of eyes on the ground is always a good idea in cases like these, especially if you think the issue originated with yourself, perhaps because of poor timing in a release, or too harsh of a correction.
Correcting, Cue Anticipation
This kind of anticipation is more common, and a lot easier to fix, it often aligns with either a very smart and willing horse, or with a horse who has been asked to do a lot of something that aligns with it’s nature (eg. a hot horse asked to go faster a lot)
The best way to correct this kind of anticipation is to lock down the maneuver they anticipate. What do I mean? If you have a hot horse that speeds up without you asking them to, or jumps the gun when you ask for lateral movement, you need to make the ask for the maneuver they are trying to do, more complicated, by adding more cues.
For example, maybe currently you want your horse to lope off with just leg and seat cues, but if the horse anticipates too much with just those two cues you can lock it down even more by adding your voice.
My mare when I was first training her would take off like a bat outta hell at even the tiniest kiss, even before she really knew what it meant. I NEVER had to use a lunge whip, but she was not being obedient and responsive she was being reactive, so I first desensitized her to the kiss, until I could make that sound without it meaning anything. Then I made a complicated set of cues for my lope departures. First leg and reins for body placement, then seat for balance and then a triple kiss, the first kiss means get ready, then a double kiss means we should be loping now. This allowed me to have more control over the lope departures, and I made sure to do weird things during the training process such as doing all but the very last double kiss, so that she knew she has to wait until that last cue to perform the maneuver.
Now, at the stage of training I am at with her I am starting to wean her off some of the more complicated cue combos, so that I can refine my aids more. Eventually I will be able to to any or all of the cues in certain ways to get the same result.
The biggest error with lope departure anticipation specifically that I see, and have experienced myself, is releasing the leg too early, or saying ‘sorry’…
Don’t Say Sorry!
Saying sorry is a term I use for releasing a cue that was misinterpreted by the horse. A good example of this would be you put your leg on for a lateral maneuver, the horse picks up speed and you release the leg and slow the horse down. Where this become an issue is when it’s repeated the horse learns that is what you want, put leg on, go faster for a bit, then slow down. No matter how you correct this behaviour with your seat and reins, the fact remains that you are release that leg pressure and the horse will interpret that as the release and sign they did good.
In order to break your own habit of saying ‘sorry’ all you have to do is get in the habit of keeping that leg on, while slowing the horse down and showing them that’s not what you mean. I sometimes think of it like if you are talking to someone and use a word they don’t understand, you wouldn’t just stop talking, or keep repeating the word, you would simplify it and explain that’s not what you meant.
Don’t be Afraid to go Back To Grade School
No matter what level the horse is at, especially if you are a novice trainer, you may at some time or another have to return to grade school to refresh something the horse has put in the back of its mind. The worst thing we can say as riders is “we’re past that”. Think about everything you learned in school, anything you don’t use on a regular basis in your adult life is like hidden away in some dust corner of your brain. Think of the show “Are you smarter than a firth grader”. It’s ok to go back and do a refresher course, even if it’s super basic stuff you think they should know. We through a lot at our horses and although they are smart and adaptive, they are not as smart as us, and they can get confused.
Don’t think of it as taking a step back, it’s just revision and generally you don’t have to spend more than a session or two before the horse catches back up.