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Pressure gets a lot of attention in the world of horse training. “Pressure and Release” is the primary way that most horses are trained and there is much discussion on the correct application of pressure  – should it be steady or rhythmic, constant or increasing, and how much is enough? In today's article, however, I want to look at a different aspect of pressure – the response that pressure elicits from a horse.

Speaking more technically, pressure and release is negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is one way in which horses learn, and in this form of learning the horse is reinforced by the removal of an aversive. This “aversive” is generally the pressure we talk so much about. An aversive can be physical or emotional and refers to anything that is slightly annoying to the horse to something that is outright painful – it all falls under the term negative reinforcement. The way this form of learning works is that the horse learns to do more of what caused the removal of whatever it was he didn’t like – the release of the pressure.

Why do we use this form of training with horses and is pressure necessary? There are a lot of different explanations offered for why pressure and release training should be used with horses, but the best answer is that negative reinforcement is simply an effective way of learning for all conscious species – not just horses – and our horses behaviors are shaped as a result of this form of learning, both in and out of training. We wouldn’t need to use pressure in training, positive reinforcement can be just as effective, but generally pressure and release is easier for us riders to use, especially from the saddle. Also, I believe that when we pay attention to how we are using pressure and use it in a way that is more “guiding” and less aversive it can make the training process easier for the horse then using positive reinforcement alone – more on that later!

The effectiveness and the ethics of negative reinforcement training are determined by the way pressure is applied and the speed and accuracy of when it is released when the horse offers a correct response or behavior. Obviously the mindset and stress level for the horse will be greatly affected by how pressure is applied – a pressure that is just a bit uncomfortable is going to be much less stressful than pressure that causes fear or pain. Which brings me to the main topic of this article – how can we become more aware of the way we apply pressure and the response that pressure creates from our horses, and not just the behavior they offer, but the other effects of that pressure – does their body brace, do they become more unavailable emotionally – or do they soften and move willingly with a relaxed mind?

This is something I have given a lot of thought to ever since attending Mark Rashid’s aikido clinic this past January. Aikido, a Japanese martial art, puts a lot of attention in not just the technique being applied, but also into how that technique is applied and the effect that every move of the aikidoist has on his “attacker”. What I have been learning, both at Mark’s clinic, and my own practice of both aikido and better riding is that the way pressure is applied has a huge effect on the results of that pressure – on our training and how our horses move and respond.

An easy way to think about this (and something we did a lot of at Mark’s clinic) is to stand next to another person and push on their shoulder, with the intention of getting them to move their feet and step to the side. Giving someone a shove or a strong forceful push almost always has the effect of causing that person to want to brace their muscles and push back, so the result is either we can’t move them at all or even if we can their movement ends up being more of a stumble to the side. However, if we can stay soft, essentially free from negative emotion, and then go gently – essentially guiding their movement over instead of forcing it – we end up with a very different result.

Taking this concept to our horses, we want to be using pressure to guide our horses movement, not push them around. When we use an aid to apply pressure, especially physically pressure with our hands, reins, seat or leg, we want our horses to soften, not stiffen, in response to that pressure. It’s a tough concept to describe and even harder to master, but I think we can start by being aware of the presence we bring into every ride or training session – are we tight inside or soft and happy? Then we can start to notice the responses of our horses to the pressures we apply – do they stiffen or soften and move willingly?

When we can use pressure to guide our horses to the response we are asking for, we can make training easier and less stressful for them. Think of it as a good leading dance partner, someone who is able to guide your feet without making you feel as though you are being pushed around the floor.

The next time you are with your horse, just be observant to what you feel and how they respond. See if you can change their response by changing the way you ask them to move. I look forward to your thoughts and comments!

Callie

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Comments

13 Responses

  1. This is something I learned early on with my OTTB mare. She generally cooperates a lot better if I ask nicely so nothing escalates into a standoff.

    1. my horse works better with very light and quiet corrections. However, my horses do understand pressure when they get into an area or zone that is not okay with me. They learn it in the herd and they learn it in the round pen. Typically, I try to encourage good behaviour. One thing I worry about though is when my horses does something I don’t like, say throwing up his head while riding, he stops it and is rewarded with positive reinforcement. This makes me worry that he is going to keep doing the bad to get the good. Callie, what do you think about that?

      1. That is a really good observation Michelle and that is actually something that horses can learn to do: bad behavior, then good behavior. Try to vary your reinforcement more and reward the good behavior when it is not initiated by the bad. Sometimes I find that this takes a bunch of “reinforcement” in a row for the right thing so you can keep them doing the right thing before they have a chance to go back to their string of behaviors and offer the bad one. Hope this helps!

  2. My mare does not know leg cues. Been trying to teach her. I feel sometimes my timing is off. I bump her most the time no responds . Some people reinforce with a whip. that seems negative to me.
    Rita

    1. Hey Rita,

      Work on those leg cues on the ground first. Make sure you’ve placed them well, and that she knows them well before working in the saddle to reinforce the ground work. Timing is everything so work on that for sure. Release of pressure is most important right away. Have patience and take your time. Something done slowly and right is better than something done quickly and wrong. I don’t like whipping a horse for any reason. I, too, think it is too rough. I use a rope, and I use a whip. I use them lightly as an extension of my arm. My horses have run into them while training and have learned to stay away from them when they are swinging. I don’t whip my horse with them though and won’t listen to any trainer that does. My horses are my friends and like my own kids. I would no more whip a friend or child than I would whip my horse.

  3. So important that we are conscious of everything we do with/to/around our horses and pay close attention to their reactions and what they are (trying to) tell us. Another great article Callie.

  4. Outstanding article as usual!. A slight turn on why horses respond so well to the release of pressure, is that horses do have a language in the herd. It consists of 3 components
    1) body sign language (a look, a flap of the ear, the turning of head, head posn,,etc).
    2) Pressure and Relase: a bite a push, a kick etc
    3) verbal: a whinney, nicker, etc.
    From that they have a vocabulary to communicate to all the other horses in the herd. Just watch a herd of horse establish: pecking order, grooming, and even where they stand in relation to each other.
    So, with that in, I currently believe that all cues and communication with your horse can be associated in the same way. Each cue or command can be thought of as a new “word” to be taught to the horse. Apply the cue via pressure, starting with a little pressure as possible , (leg cue to lope), body language: go to right on lunge line, Stop: Whoa. By teaching what you want the cue “Word” mean by taking off the pressure when they properly respond or increasing the pressure or increasing their work if they do not until they do respond, rewarding the slightest try.
    Hope I made some sense here, and welcome any feedback.

    Phil Vinet

  5. Dear Callie and others,

    It is so nice to see here how constructive discusion can be and we share different experiences and knowledges thank to Callie.

    Do you have a topic about horses that are most of the time lazy to cooperate no matter whether we are working together easy exercises on the ground with them or ride in the open field?
    In fact, it seems to me like I have a specific problem with a lack of power in my horse. My horse is 10 y old gelding and I give him all the love of this world, but it seems that there is not enough interest on his part, whatever I try to do.
    He does not suffer from any pain at the moment and I would like to know what to do to motivate him to invest more energy whatever we work together. Each of our training brings something different and new but I do not see a lot of interest on his part. If you have a tip on horseback with a lack of energy, please share with me..
    thank you all!

    1. Hi Maja,

      There are several ways to motivate a horse. First is to put something of value to the horse in the training, such as food. Clicker training and using food rewards can be a powerful motivator for many horses. For some horses, “laziness” is just a lack of responsiveness. The horse has learned that cues and pressures are inconsistent in their application and/or isn’t bothered too much by pressure so they learn to essentially ignore these cues. I would go back to the basics of training – stop and go forward – and give yourself a clear plan for how you will ask for each – say verbal cue, then leg squeeze for 2 seconds, then whip tapping increasing intensity until a forward step, releasing immediatly. Being very consistent with pressures (or rewards) usually helps a lot with motivation.

    2. When we run across this type of laziness, we start to reward the horse (give them a rest)only after they put in “extra” energy into the movement we are asking for. For example in a backup we only stop the backup after they have put in some energy into the backup. At the walk only give a stop after giving more effort into the movement. So when doing transitions only give a rest after doing some extended trots in which in, ( trot…..extended trot….trot…..extended trot….trot..extended trot (more energy)….stop) The key is to communicate to the horse thru consistency (as Callie notes below )that a rest only comes after exertion. Hope that helps. Always open to comments.

  6. Hi Callie, I have had my new pony for three weeks. She was in a paddock on her own and was always very quiet to lead away from and back to her paddock after riding. Once she was moved into a paddock beside other horses and is now in with them she tries to rush back when I am leading her. How can I best use pressure and release in this situation to teach her not to rush but walk at my place instead. I ask her to stop wihch she does but as soon as I ask her to walk she rushes again. Just in case anything is lost in translation this is when I am on foot not mounted. Thanks Cherie

    1. Cherie – I would start by working on the halt and walk cues in the halter in a different location than the walk back to the barn, you could actually add a little bit of a food reward too for the halt and that would add a little more value to the walk and give her something else to think about while you are back in that same walking back to the barn situation!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

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