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!