Reaction vs Response

Whether a horse is reacting or responding to an aid actually makes a big difference in our training.

During my first internship at Bent Branderup’s, Christofer Dahlgren spoke to us one evening about the difference between reaction and response, an idea which changed my training fundamentally and which I have thought about a lot ever since.

Here are my findings on this topic so far.

Signs that the horse REACTS:

  • Reaction is delayed
  • Aid has to be repeated
  • Reaction only comes when pressure steps are added
  • Every once and so often, pressure has to be escalated in order to get a reaction at all
  • Horse reacts with physical tension (stiffness) or mental tension (shows discomfort or stress)
  • Horse doesn’t react in the same way each time, sometimes very little, sometimes not al all, sometimes too much
  • If the circumstances change (doing the exercise in a different place, for example away from the wall), the horse doesn’t react anymore.

Signs that the horse RESPONDS:

  • Response is immediate
  • The aid does not have to be repeated
  • The aid works every time (given the horse pays attention)
  • No pressure steps have to be added
  • Pressure does not have to be escalated every once and so often
  • Response is soft, physically and mentally
  • Horse responds the same way each time
  • The aid can be used in different contexts and the horse still understands

So what it boils down to is – does the horse really understand the aid? If yes, he will give you a response, if not, he will react.

I found that reactions can mostly be found with horses that have been trained with escalating pressure systems, while responses are achieved when taking the time (and sometimes becoming creative…) to explain to the horse what we mean.

Example:

  • The inside leg aid in walk, in groundwork. Ideally, you point the tip of your whip towards the girth area and the horse should make itself hollow on the inside and stretch the outside. There are more points to consider, but let’s just assume this is what we are looking for. With a horse that didn’t fully understand the aid, the aid has to be repeated often and pressure steps have to be added (tapping with whip, making large movements with the whip, using more pressure with whip). With a horse that understood the aid, the horse will stay bended and will be soft in the bending.
  • Escalating pressure will not really help the horse to understand, because there will be emotions and tension involved on his side and the result is not permanent. So what could be a solution?
  • In this case, it helps to stop and explain to the horse in standing what we mean when we point the whip to this place. We can help wit our hand on with the cavesson and ask for bending while pointing the whip to the girth area. We can also let the horse make one step away from the whip with the inside hind leg. This will not be the end result and is just a step on the way, but can help. We could also make exercises such as the square, and in each corner we point the whip to the girth area and make the turn. This way of teaching it has the advantage, that the outside shoulder also comes forward, whereas when we ask a step away from the whip, we don’t consider all the points that should happen during bending in the horse’s body. The square also has the advantage, that no pressure has to be added, the horse simply learns via association.

So if we have to

  • repeat aids all the time
  • use pressure scales or escalate pressure
  • get stiffness or tension
  • or the aid doesn’t work under certain circumstances

then our horse didn’t fully understand the aid. It is up to us then to find a better explanation for the horse.

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