The Driving Game teaches your horse how to yield from a “suggestion” with no physical touching involved. In the beginning, driving is done at a reasonably close range, but as you progress, you can actually drive (or suggest) from quite a distance. The ability to communicate this way becomes especially useful when you need to direct your horse away from you, maneuver him around obstacles, move him out of your space or ask him to perform a task without the ability to touch him.
Horses play the Driving Game with each other all the time. The alpha or lead horse only has to give a meaningful ‘look’ and a swish of the tail to drive another horse away. Watch horses interacting with each other. When the more dominant horse drives another horse out of his space, he brings up his energy, puts his ears back and “tells” that other horse to move away with a scowl on his face. The horse’s body language, expression and intention are very clear: “move out of my space before I bite or kick you!” This is usually enough to get the other horse to move. If not, the dominant horse will steadily and progressively add more pressure to get a response. He’ll approach with greater threat and, if necessary, finally make contact with his teeth or hooves.
In Parelli Natural Horse•Man•Ship (PNH), we call this progressive, on-coming pressure “the Four Phases.” Asking a horse to do something using as little pressure as possible and then following through until you are effective will teach him to pay attention to your slightest suggestion. When you and your horse experience how this feels, you will be able to move your horse around with the slightest and simplest suggestions.
Becoming an expert on the ground with the Driving Game is key to riding a horse bridle-less. Once your horse learns to respond to your slightest suggestions on the ground, he is able to understand your suggestions from the saddle. Sensitizing your horse this way translates into invisible aids. What looks like magic or a seriously dangerous situation to most normal people, becomes quite a simple matter to you because you have taken the time to establish faultless communication and eliminated the risks.
How the Driving Game works
Horses are naturally inclined to move away from flapping objects or rhythmic pressure (as used in the Driving Game), whereas they tend to lean into steady pressure (like that used in the Porcupine Game, Game Two).
When first beginning, your horse may be a little reactive to the rhythmic pressure of the Driving Game. He may scoot around, trying to escape your suggestion, rather than moving away calmly and with respect. You just need to stay with him, stay in position and continue to drive him with passive persistence until he is calm and thinking.
Be careful of becoming too critical or asking for too much too soon. Take things at your horse’s pace and incorporate plenty of Friendly Game (Game One) by relaxing and rubbing him when he stops. Your horse will quickly learn not to be scared and will begin to confidently understand that you are asking him to move away from you, not run off.
Because the Driving Game is relatively easy to teach your horse, be careful not to use it instead of the Porcupine Game. You and your horse need to become adept at all of the Seven Games.
It’s like learning the alphabet. Once you have every letter mastered, you can build complete words and sentences and have intelligent conversations. Just imagine what your conversations would be like if you never mastered the letter A or the letter O? All the words containing those letters would be unavailable to you. Wouldn’t that make your communications far more limited and, in turn, limit what you could do?
Each one of the Seven Games is a vital part of your horsemanship alphabet, so don’t cut corners. Each game builds on the one before it so that it makes perfect sense to the horse. Remember when you learned about vowels and consonants? They were taught to you in a specific order so that it would make sense. Learning and using the Seven Games is how you develop a great language and sophisticated communication system with a horse. They will also help you learn to effectively diagnose and solve “behaviour” problems in horses with ease.
When first teaching your horse to understand the human version of playing the Driving Game (as opposed to what it looks like coming from another horse), use rhythm in your hands. The beat should be like the Indian drums in grade “B” western movies! Move your hands in little sets of four beats, emphasizing the first beat of each set: “BOOM boom boom boom… BOOM boom boom boom….” This rhythm is something your horse will learn to recognize and understand without fearing it.
A horse only knows he did the right thing when you quit asking for it, or release the pressure. By this I mean that you stop (quit) the driving action with your hands and just relax (release the horse from pressure) as soon as he even tries to do what you asked.
You could release your horse by stroking him in the same area you were just driving (incorporating the Friendly Game as a reward). Sometimes, just stopping completely, relaxing and doing nothing is even better than trying to pet your horse. You can always pet him later and some horses actually feel more comfort not being touched.
The Four Phases are the key to being firm, fair and friendly, while being polite, clear and totally effective in your communication with a horse. Phases mean that you start as politely as possible and progress slowly and steadily until you get a response.
The different Phases throughout the Driving Game should not change your rhythm or beat. The only thing that should change is the level of intensity. The biggest secret of the Four Phases is to use them! I see a lot of people who start with too much pressure but never use enough to be effective. Their horses then become bracey, resistant, dull and get progressively more ill-tempered. These people are just annoying their horses because they have not learned how to balance between being polite and being effective.
To teach your horse to be truly light and respectful, you have to be light first. The softness of Phase One is really important for building sensitivity. Phase Four becomes important in keeping your horse from getting dull. If you do it right, you’ll find that after using Phase Four only a few times, you will rarely have to use it again. Your horse will want to move well before you ever get near Phase Four.
If you use Phase Four as a way to get forceful, the phases will work in exactly the opposite of the way you want. Instead of teaching the horse to yield, you will end up scaring him. He will find ways to escape, evade and avoid until he can run away! Learning to use the Four Phases correctly will help your horse learn to notice what’s happening before it actually happens, and start responding to you well before Phase Four!
Teaching your horse the Driving Game
A key to successfully playing the Driving Game is learning how to be clear to your horse about which area you are asking him to move. One of the most common pitfalls is looking the horse in the eye while you are trying to move the hindquarters. Doing this projects an inconsistent message. Instead, you need to look directly at the part of the horse’s body you want to move.
The first thing to ask for is the back up. Stand in front of your horse, look him squarely in both eyes and ask him to back up. Play with this until you can easily drive your horse backwards at least five or six steps consistently. Using the Four Phases, this can be achieved in just a few minutes.
Once backwards is comfortable, start working with driving your horse’s front end away from you. Get to where you can drive the forequarters around in a full circle with your horse mostly pivoting on his hind legs. Of course, begin by asking for just for a step or two, then two or more until you build up enough steps to make a full circle.
The next area to play the Driving Game in is the hindquarters. I strongly recommend using a PNH Carrot Stick when you start working on this maneuver. The Carrot Stick acts as a four-foot extension of your arm and will help you maintain a position that will keep you much safer. Without the Carrot Stick, this is a vulnerable position should your horse take offense, get frightened, take off or decide to drive you away instead!
When playing the Seven Games with horses, you may come across a horse that resists you or refuses to yield. Horses play dominance games with each other all the time, and most horses will decide to play them with you too. Horses challenging your dominance may kick out, pin their ears at you, nip or get aggressive in some way. This is natural to horses but usually scary to people who don’t understand what’s going on.
A horse will test you or show Opposition Reflex for one of three reasons: he is scared, he is defensive, or he is trying to dominate you (he is challenging you). The better you get at reading him and diagnosing the reason behind the reaction, the more effective you will be in dealing with it.
The first thing to understand is that getting upset or angry will not work. It will only further upset a scared horse or show a dominant horse that he’s got your number. Stay calm. Slow things down. Be deliberate in what you ask for and stay out of range. This is where you learn how to be passively persistent in the proper position! Just keep asking until the horse realizes he doesn’t need to be scared, or if he’s trying to dominate you, then until he realizes he needs to do the moving.
My students use special tools to stay out of harm’s way — the four-foot PNH Carrot Stick with the six-foot PNH Savvy String tied to it and the full extent of the twelve-foot Line are all designed to keep you a safe distance from even the most ill-behaving horses.
These specially designed tools are meant to be extensions of your arms. My students who use them have reported that they feel much safer as well as more effective. Please take special note that I do not recommend stiff ropes, short ropes and flexible whips because they are neither safe nor effective. The lack of effective and well-made equipment in today’s market is the reason I developed my own. When you first start to learn these techniques and begin teaching them to your horse, I want to make sure you are equipped for success and safety.
I know of some very extreme cases (most of them stallions) where the first stages of the Driving Game were only safely played from behind corral panels or a fence because the horse was so vicious! By having a barrier to protect me, I was able to be passively persistent and safe while taking the time I needed to prove to the horse that I meant to “win” this game without either of us feeling like a loser. I mention this only because you may find you have a horse that challenges you this much when you try to play dominance games with him. Please understand that I strongly discourage people from taking on difficult horses until they have an appreciable level of skill, savvy and experience. As a measuring stick, I recommend they are able to complete Levels 1, 2 and 3 in my program before tackling difficult horses.
Think about a person who just took his first few lessons in martial arts. Do you think it would be a good idea if he challenged Bruce Lee right away? Probably not! But perhaps after he has studied and earned his black belt then he would be ready for such a great challenge.
Horses are born masters of horsemanship; it’s their game! What we must do is learn how to play their game. In my system, you earn your ‘black belt’ by completing Level 3. Until then, I recommend you leave the Bruce Lee stallions and colts alone. Learn the rules and the moves of the game with more forgiving teachers.
Start On Line, progress to Liberty
The ultimate goal is to be able to do the Driving Game at Liberty — without a halter or lead on your horse, with extremely subtle suggestions and from great distances. To start this way, however, sets you and your horse up for quite a bit of frustration. Imagine learning to handle the trapeze without a net. If something went wrong, and you couldn’t correct it, you end up risking more than you bargained for.
The secret to learning how to play with a horse at Liberty is to pretend that you never have a lead rope and halter to use. Playing with your horse On Line until the rope is dragging on the ground prepares you for playing at Liberty. This means there is always slack in the rope so your horse doesn’t feel like he has anything on unless he tries to turn away. Your Driving Game can become so good that all you need to do is look at an area of your horse’s body and shake a finger to yield your horse. Once you can play the Driving Game like this, you are ready to try it without a rope.
As your skills develop, your horse will start to give you more of a positive reflex by yielding politely, with a great attitude and a soft look in his eye. If your horse puts his ears back when you play the Driving Game, this tells you two things: that he is unhappy about you being dominant and is probably still challenging it, or that you are too hurried, too demanding, too critical about how well he does, or too fast with the Four Phases. Slow down. Be happy with just a little and reward often.
Don’t turn the Seven Games into the ‘Seven Jobs.’ Remember to include plenty of Friendly Game between tasks by smiling and visibly softening when you release.
In the next issue: The Yo-Yo Game.