I only have two voice commands and they are basically ‘whoa‘ and ‘go‘, but those two commands cover a lot of territory.
I’ll start with ‘whoa’ which can be verbalized in many ways. A sharp ‘whoa!’ means slide to a stop, a softer longer ‘whoooa’ could mean half-halt or simply slow down.
I train my horses to relate to my tone of voice starting at at the walk. If your horse doesn’t halt well at the walk, he’s not going to do it properly at the trot or canter. The rein aids should always follow the voice command ‘whoa’ by a split second, and never the other way around.
I always follow up my halt with a rein-back. The horse should stop and step back 3-5 steps immediately and willingly. When they stop they shouldn’t freeze; they should step back immediately and then move ahead willingly with contact.
I do the halt and rein-back with the weight in my heel and then I stop the rein-back by adding leg. When I’m reining back with my weight in my heel, I allow my hands to lighten my seat, which allows the horse’s back to elevate and his hind legs to come forward easier. A horse with a good rein-back should have a more balanced canter because of their ability to bring their hocks under their barrel. It’s as simple as this: the horse will canter better when it balances on its hind end rather than its forehand.
Throughout this whole exercise of halt, rein-back and walk ahead, I try to create flexion at the pole and consequently the horse will ride better at all three gaits. Remember to reward your horse by stretching your elbows when he does give you flexion at the pole and softens his mouth. This is part of the training program and when you repeat exercises correctly, horses get better every day. Flexion at the pole and a soft mouth is something to strive for and two common negatives to achieving this goal are tight nose bands and poorly-adjusted bits.
That ‘whoa’ voice command can be a huge asset when you need your horse to shorten stride on course. One tip: don’t use the command too close to the jump ‒ you might regret it. I certainly have on occasion!
Now the next voice command can really make you the winner. I realized a long time ago the value of the cluck. I was working my first job at SamSon Farms and the horse’s name was Too Many Mornings. It was appropriately named because it was so lazy and his rider had problems getting him to canter. I started riding him and to get him to canter I would cluck and a split second later tap him on the butt with my stick. Before long, a cluck and a touch of the leg and he would jump into the canter.
One thing I might add is the horse has to hear the cluck in order to respond to it, so don’t whisper it, bark it. Also, if you plug your horse’s ears you may have a problem.
On course the cluck can be very valuable. You’re approaching that spooky jump and your horse is backing off, so start clucking three strides out. You’ve got an ugly distance and you need your horse to make a big effort, cluck! You have a horse that may occasionally stop, so a positive response to your cluck might just be the answer. You’ve got a good distance but it’s a huge oxer and you want to leave it up, cluck!
I had a horse in the late eighties named Sirocco. He could jump the World Cup, but he would just sneak over the jumps, consequently having the occasional rail. I taught him “get light to my cluck.” I would cluck at every jump and he would push hard and balloon the jumps. In 1989 he won the North American Championship at Spruce Meadows and then got sold to Mexico.
How do I get them light to my cluck? Well, I still use my original technique of cluck and stick at the walk to take the canter, although now I use a dressage whip so I never have to drop the reins. I also substitute my spur for the whip and quite often I’ll use this technique at the canter, where I’m cantering and I cluck and accelerate using my whip or spur or both. I don’t overuse this technique, because I want the horse responding to it, but not be anticipating it.