Horseback Riding Commands
Horses are intelligent and sensitive animals, and there are always learning opportunities when you are working with a horse – for both you and for them. Fortunately, riders and trainers are able to communicate with their horses in a variety of different ways.
What are some of the top commands that you will use with your horse? Riders communicate with their horses in several different ways, including voice commands, rein (hand) cues, leg cues, and seat cues. It is important to use each of these commands correctly, as it is easy to give your horse conflicting instructions by using one of your cues unintentionally. These inconsistencies can lead to a frustrated horse (and rider).
Read on to learn more about the basics of voice commands and body aids. These cues are the basic, foundational aids that you will learn to use to control your horse, before moving on to more advanced training.
Basic Voice Commands For Your Horse
Horses are highly intelligent and trainable and are capable of learning many voice commands. Voice commands are most successful when used in conjunction with body aids. Remember, horses must be trained to respond to any aid, so a horse that hasn’t been trained with voice commands may not understand. Below, you will find the most common voice commands that are used to control a horse:
- “Whoa” – this is used to ask your horse to come to a complete stop. Your horse should respond to this instruction immediately, and you can use other body cues to accomplish this.
- “Walk” – this (or “walk on”) is used to get your horse to move into a walk from a standing position. You will usually use this command alongside leg cues and a cluck or kiss.
- “Trot” – you will use this command to ask your horse to move from a walk to a trot. You can also use leg cues and clucking or kissing noises.
- “Canter / Lope” – like trot, you will use this command to move up a gait – into a canter or a lope from a trot. Like with trotting, you may use this along with leg cues and clucking or kissing.
- “Back” – you use this voice command to get your horse to walk backward. You will use this command, along with leg and rein cues, to get your horse to move back until you ask him to stop.
- “Easy” – this voice command is used to get a horse to slow down or to calm down.
Even more important than the words that you use are the way that you use them. Horses will listen to not only the specific words but also to the intonation and volume of the commands. Do not shout at your horse or yell commands. Speak calmly, firmly, and be assertive. Say the words in the same way each time – for example, you may hear some riders drawing out the word “trot” as in “terrr-ot”. So long as you use consistency each time, your horse will understand the command.
Voice Commands: Clucking / Kissing
You often hear riders clucking or making kissing noises with their horses – so what do these mean? These sounds are effective cues; used by most riders interchangeably, they are meant to direct the horse to move up a gait (either with “walk”, “trot”, or “canter/lope”). However, some horses are trained to trot at a clucking noise, and to canter/lope at a kissing noise. When riding a new horse, it is a good idea to ask the rider or instructor how the horse you are riding is trained to interpret these sounds.
Horse Commands: Using Your Seat
Shifting your weight in the saddle is a powerful, yet often underrated riding aid. A well-trained horse is very responsive to your seat, and if you are not careful you can communicate with your horse unintentionally through your weight. Seat aids are especially helpful in asking your horse to speed up or to slow down.
To ask your horse to speed up, you can rock your hips in a back-and-forth motion similar to the movement that you would use on a swing. Your hips should move with the sway of the horse’s gait. To ask your horse to slow down, you can use your core muscles to slow your own back-and-forth movement and sit as still as possible. You can use these seat cues to increase or decrease speed within a gait, or to move up or down a gait.
Horses are very sensitive to your weight and your own movement. They will notice when you shift your weight side to side, lean forward, or sit back. With experience, you will learn to relax while riding and will begin moving your hips to align with your horse’s stride. Once you are comfortable and aware of these movements, you will be able to effectively use your seat aids.
Using your seat aids is usually the last skill that riders become proficient in when it comes to giving commands. But if you find that your horse is not responding to your other commands, or is doing something you do not think you asked for, consider the way you are sitting and whether or not you might be giving seat cues without intending to.
To learn more about how to use your seat when riding, visit my article 10 Tips to Improve Your Seat on a Horse: Beginner’s Guide.
Horse Commands: Using The Reins
Most beginners believe that when it comes to steering, it’s all about the reins. While we know that there are other body cues you can (and should) use to steer your horse, rein/hand cues will be one of the first skills that you learn.
When using the reins, you can use both neck reining and open reining. Not every horse is taught to neck rein, so that is something to be mindful of. To use open reining, you will pull the left rein to the left side to move in that direction, or the right rein to the right side to move that direction. Don’t yank back, and don’t pull up or down. The rein is usually connected to a bit or a hackamore that will put pressure on your horse’s delicate face. You should not need much pressure at all to get your horse to steer – if you do, your horse is not listening to you, or you are giving your horse conflicting instructions.
To use neck reining, you will touch the reins to the left side of your horse’s neck to move right, and the right side of your horse’s neck to move left. Horses move away from pressure, and a well-trained horse will feel the light pressure of the reins against his neck and will move in the opposite direction. For many horses, you will use open reining and neck reining simultaneously. Some horses are well-trained in neck reining, and you can use this method alone.
Be aware of the force you are using with the reins. The horse’s mouth (in the case of bits) and nose (in the case of a hackamore) are very delicate on a horse and you can cause serious damage and pain to your horse if you jerk on the reins or pull too hard. As if causing pain to your horse is not enough to encourage you to use caution, consider that a horse in pain will react poorly to your forceful cues. Your horse may react by swinging her head side to side, swishing her tail, and even rearing and bucking.
Horse Commands: Using Your Legs
As stated above, horses move away from pressure – this is how they are trained, and this is also their natural instinct as prey animals. To use your leg cues, simply press your left heel into the horse’s left side to get him to move to the right, or press your right heel into the horse’s right side to get him to move to the left. With some horses you may need to dig your heels in – other horses will move at the slightest whisper of your heels.
You will also use your legs to increase or decrease speed. To increase speed or to get your horse to move into the next gait, press both heels into your horse’s sides. Start light, and increase the pressure only if your horse does not respond. To get your horse to slow down, you can add leg cues to rein and voice commands by sinking your weight and feet down into the stirrups while sitting back.
Using Horse Commands Together
These different commands are almost never used alone – sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not. If you believe you are using leg cues alone, you are also likely engaging in seat aids. It is most effective to use these different methods to complement one another. If your horse is not obeying your commands, before you assume more pressure, stop to think about what it is you are telling your horse through your body and the way you are holding yourself. You may just be giving your horse mixed signals.
Seek Instruction When Learning Horse Commands
Because of the coordination it takes to learn to use all of these commands together, it is helpful to have an instructor working with you as you are learning (which we advise you do anyway until you are a proficient rider). Your instructor will be able to tell you if you are sitting too far forward or too far back, if your reins are too short or too long, and if you are using too much (or too little) pressure. In time you will learn to recognize these signals on your own and make adjustments as you are riding.
When you just start out riding a horse, you’re bound to make mistakes. Heck, I still make mistakes and I’ve been riding for 17 years. To help identify some common riding mistakes, check out my article Horseback Riding Mistakes: 11 Common Mistakes to Avoid.
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