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WHOA!: teaching voice commands in a way that works

Inevitably, when I talk about teaching voice commands to horses, there will always be one or two people in the group who insist that horses either are incapable of learning them or who don't believe the need exists for their horse to know them since we have other means of communicating our wishes to our equines. Some people even believe that teaching voice commands can be counterproductive to our development as equestrians. Indeed, in certain competitions such as dressage, the use of voice commands is prohibited or can result in a reduction of the competitor's score. However, I must respectfully disagree with the notions that voice commands are useless or inherently counterproductive, and the assumption that horses are simply incapable of learning voice commands is objectively and verifiably untrue (unless we are talking about a deaf horse). Horses are just as capable, if not more capable, of learning voice commands as your average border collie, and you will not regard voice commands as useless or counterproductive if you find yourself in a situation of equipment failure, for example. Additionally, I spend a lot of time ponying horses as a training tool, an exercise that would be far more dangerous and difficult without the pony horse having a solid understanding of my voice commands.

Most of us have encountered the horse like the one above in the comic who has heard "WHOA, dammit," yelled at him so many times that he’s convinced that's his name. If we don't know a horse like that, we've certainly met dogs who think their name must be "Go Lie Down!" But if we want our animals to respond favorably to our voice commands (and thereby eliminate the need to yell at them endlessly without yielding a result) we must make sure that the words we say to them are meaningful. So how do we go about training voice command in an effective way that is sure to make sense to our horses?

The first step is to pick a voice command and have a clear idea of what we expect when we give it. Voice commands that are either of one syllable or have an unique rhythm about them are preferable to those that are overly-verbose. Additionally, you ought to take care to make sure your voice command of choice does’t resemble a word or sound that you often make in your daily life so as to avoid confusing your horse.

While it may seem obvious, making sure you have a clear idea of what constitutes obedience to the command is of utmost importance. You must have one command for one action. I once knew a girl who would yell “WHOA” repeatedly at her horse as she lunged him, using the word (from what I could gather) to mean anything from slow down, turn, or stop. The poor horse had no idea what the girl intended for him to do whenever she started screaming “whoa” at him, so he eventually just tuned her out altogether.

In addition to knowing what it is you expect the horse to do, you must come up with a time frame within which you deem it acceptable for him to respond. I personally expect the animal to respond to my request crisply and quickly, within about one second of me saying it. With this in mind I can start training a horse for my verbal requests so that the response is a consistent one within the time frame I have decided on. Some people are a little more lenient with their expectations, wanting the horse to respond within a few seconds rather than a few milliseconds, which is fine, as long as your expectations are consistent and you let your horse know what they are.

To start with, develop the habit of using voice commands when your horse will have no choice but to respond favorably to your request. For example, use the word “WHOA” every time when approaching a gate or a fence and the horse will have no option except to WHOA! Another method we might use is to be in tune enough with our horse to be able to predict accurately when he’s going to stop of his own accord, whether at liberty or while we are handling him. When you can see that he’s about to put on the brakes, apply your voice command so that he begins to attach it to the action of stopping. Of course, after he stops, you should praise him as if he did it in response to your verbal request so that he starts to understand that his stopping when you utter the whoa-word makes you a happy handler.

Of course, this incidental obedience to my verbal requests is only part of the puzzle—I will also spend a few days drilling a new voice command repeatedly until the horse is consistently responding correctly without having to think too much about it. The most important thing to remember when training a horse a voice command is not to utter the word you’re teaching him to respond to unless you can be sure you will get the correct response one way or another. This means, don’t break your “whoa” button by pushing it repeatedly when you’re unsure if the horse will respond or not! The more unsuccessful attempts you make to stop him (or get him to perform any other action) to your voice, the more you “untrain” the command. In other words, the more the horse hears a particular command that’s intended to elicit a reaction and he does nothing, the less the word carries meaning for him.

To get the horse to consistently perform the desired action in response to a particular voice command, you must have another way to communicate the request to him that he understands and has very little chance of denying you. As an example we will look at the ways in which you might train the “whoa” command since it is, in my opinion, the most essential of all voice commands.

When I train the “whoa” command to a horse who may have never been exposed to such a verbal request, I’ll usually start on the ground leading him (assuming, of course, that the horse is at least halter-broken). I’ll start out at a walk, moving him forward with purpose and focus, and when I decide it’s a good time to stop, I’ll say “whoa” as I stop moving MY feet and prepare to apply pressure to the lead rope to stop the horse in case my verbal command and body language go unheeded. A well halter-broken horse should stop moving when you do, even without knowing the “whoa” command, but this doesn’t mean that most of them will.

If the horse is in fact well halter-broken and stops when you do then there is no need to apply the additional pressure to his head via the lead rope (if you haven’t already read my blog on pressure, you can find there a more thorough explanation of its use in horse training). In this instance, you can go straight to the praise, which should be laid on extra thick so that the horse is sure he has performed satisfactorily.

If the horse does not stop moving his feet when you do and after you say “whoa” then you must insist that he do as asked by using more direct, physical cues to the animal until he performs the desired action (in this instance, stopping). The time between when you say the word “whoa” and begin to apply the additional physical cue will depend on what kind of a timeframe you determined to be acceptable. I personally give the horse no more than a step or two after I’ve said the word before I will physically enforce the stop. Using the lead rope, I apply firm, steady pressure to the horse’s face via the halter, incrementally increasing the pressure as needed until the horse stops. Then, I immediately release the pressure and praise the horse as if he’s just ended the war in Syria or cured the world’s hunger problem and then do the whole thing over again. And again. And again.

How many repetitions are enough? I will repeat this first drill until the horse has responded correctly at least once on both sides. Some people are very surprised to find that the horse may seem to have mastered the command while being led from the left side, only to be back at square one when they move to animal’s right side to try the command from there. This is why it’s important to switch sides and do the exercise again. As Clinton Anderson always says, “new side, new horse,” and when you’re in the saddle you won’t have the advantage of being able to make the voice command from just the “good” side of your mount.

Once I get at least one correct response to the “whoa” command while leading the horse on both sides, I will take a break from the exercise. I may go work on other things for awhile and come back to the exercise later that same day, or I may put the horse away and give him his dinner. The important thing at this juncture is not to over-drill the exercise and make your horse sour or bored. Many positive, short sessions sprinkled throughout the day are ideal, but if this is impossible, one longer session broken up into several different activities that always starts and ends on the voice command practice will suffice. Daily practice is almost without exception indispensable since horses are creatures of habit, and you are trying to create a positive new habit of responding to a particular voice command.

When your horse is responding to the voice command consistently without you needing to apply your “backup”, physical command (e.g. pressure on the lead rope), then you may start to practice in other circumstances which give the horse a little bit more freedom and test out how honorably he will behave when you are not RIGHTTHERE. I will move my “whoa” practice to either the lunge line or the long lines from the lead line, but I still always start out close enough to the animal that I can insist that he stop with my body in case he won’t listen to my voice. Once you have solidified the command in a controlled setting and you know (with very little doubt) that he will perform as expected, only then is it advisable to give the command when you are not physically close enough to ensure that he carries it out.

The amount of time and repetitions required to get to this last stage will depend entirely on the animal. I’ve met horses who seem to pick up on a new voice command in one day, and others who require closer to two or three weeks of practice before the light bulb goes on. Usually, the later is a horse who has been talked at a lot, but communicated with very little. He has effectively been “trained” to tune out the human voice since it has carried no meaning to him in the past and is simply an annoyance to be ignored. It must be noted that this is in no way the horse’s fault, and the only way to recondition him to be responsive to a human voice is patience and persistence. This will pay off, though, when you have a horse so solidly trained on his voice commands that he will screech to a stand-still from a dead run even when at liberty, or come to you when he is called, or perform a perfect canter depart from the walk on the end of a 50 ft. lunge line. A horse like this is truly a joy to be around, not to mention far safer than a horse that pays no attention to his human’s verbal requests.

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