I've had the privilege of working with some extraordinary trainers over the years while creating how-to articles for Horse&Rider. I'm always struck by how, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, they all tend to emphasize the same basic things.
Timing and clarity are two of those things.
Timing is knowing (1) when to give a cue (usually rein or leg or seat pressure) and, even more important, (2) when to cease giving it?thereby rewarding the horse for responding.
Clarity is making sure the horse knows exactly what you're asking for in order to get the reward.
I thought of these two qualities the other day when I was marveling at how easy it's been to teach a "get-your-head-in" cue to every horse I've had on my place. You see, my run-in shed has one stall whose window can make feeding grain or pellets difficult. If the horse in that stall has his head poking out that window, I can't reach in to place the grain in the corner feeder. And of course when you're coming at a horse with goodies, he's keen to meet you halfway, so out pops the head.
But, as I say, the solution has been surprisingly easy. Using clarity and timing, I've been able to teach every horse that's used that stall (so far: two Quarter Horses, a Paint, a Pinto/Arabian, my daughter's Arabian/Mustang, and a friend's warmblood) to pull its head back from the window so I can reach the feeder.
I did it simply by standing there, grain in hand, and saying "get-your-head-in" in an authoritative voice, over and over, until by chance the horse withdrew its head into the stall, at which point I'd immediately dump the grain into the feeder. From the get-go, it was clear to each horse what had to be done (withdraw head), and the perfectly timed reward (grain in feeder) reinforced the correct behavior.
As a result, all of the horses had this command down pat by the second day's lesson. Like magic!
Static situations like this one are relatively easy, however. Maintaining both clarity and timing while you're riding along on your horse's back is a much greater challenge. Often the key to success there is breaking things down. In other words, you teach just one thing at a time, rather than shooting for softness in the bridle, lateral flexion through the topline, and the proper bend on a circle all at once.
Ask for just one of these qualities, then add the next, then the next, always allowing the time it takes for your horse to "get" each new bit of learning.
And, if your horse seems confused at any point, stop and make sure your cueing for whatever maneuver you're asking for is both correct and clear. (Ask a pro for help if you're uncertain.) Then, too, be sure you're providing the reward (release of pressure) at the exact moment your horse gives a little "try." If your timing is off, you'll be inadvertently rewarding the wrong thing, which means you're programming bad info into your horse's "onboard computer." Not good!
I know from my own experience that all this is easier to explain than it is to do. Getting really good at it, though, is worth the effort, as it will make you into a much better rider and trainer.
If you want to see first hand how nearly magical good timing and clarity can be, try this. Go out to your barn and teach your horse the drop-head cue as described by clinician Julie Goodnight. The cue for this is perfectly clear (gentle downward pressure on the halter), and if your timing is also perfect (you "give" the instant your horse's head moves minutely downward), your horse will learn this maneuver quickly--almost like magic.
Or try teaching the drop-head cue from the saddle, using our online video from Julie.
Once you fully appreciate how powerful timing and clarity can be, you can begin to apply them more effectively to everything you teach to your horse.
The results will be, well, like magic!