This article was published in The Aiken Horse magazine in 2013.
When teaching horses, pressure and release of pressure is the language of learning. As a non-verbal species, horses can be taught to distinguish between 20 – 30 words, but their capacity to read and understand subtle changes in body language is truly astonishing. Horses may lack the complex reasoning intelligence and the self-awareness of humans, but we are dunces in comparison when it comes to communicating through body language. Being aware of what your horse is trying to communicate to you through his body language is very important for your safety. Being aware of what YOU are communicating to your horse, either intentionally or inadvertently, is essential for effective training. Knowing when you are applying pressure and when you are releasing it is the first step. Understanding how much pressure to use and the moment to release pressure for maximum effect is the study of a lifetime.
What Does Pressure Look Like?
Pressure is something that causes the horse discomfort mentally or physically. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot! When we apply pressure in the training setting, we are telling the horse, “change something you are doing.” If we are teaching a horse to lead, pressure can be as simple as a taught lead rope tightening the halter around the horse’s poll asking him to step forward. A horse will quickly learn through repetition to avoid the discomfort of the poll pressure by stepping forward when the slack starts to come out of the lead rope, or when the handler steps forward. The promise of pressure becomes as motivating as the pressure itself.
What Does Release of Pressure Look Like?
The release of pressure is just as important as the application of pressure for the horse to learn. The release tells the horse “that’s the right answer.” When the horse finds the release of pressure just once, he will usually repeat that action again if he encounters the same pressure. He has learned something. In our leading example, the halter tightens, the horse steps forward, the halter loosens. The horse has learned he can relieve himself of discomfort by stepping forward, and with repetition he will learn to step up even before the lead rope tightens completely. But what if we released for something else? The lead rope tightens, the horse pulls back, pushing into the pressure of the halter instead of yielding to it, and the handler drops the lead rope. Now the horse has learned to relieve the pressure by pulling back against it. It will take several repetitions with better timing of the release before the horse understands to step forward instead of pull back.
Phases of Pressure
For a horse to learn most effectively and stay confident throughout the learning process, the right amount of pressure must be applied. Too much pressure and he will become scared of the discomfort he is going to encounter and he will not be able to concentrate on learning. Instead, he will be focused on escaping the discomfort (and possibly the handler!). Over time, he may start to fear work or working environments or people all together. He may become spooky, hard-to-catch, or barn sour. Instead of being a good student, confidently solving the pressure “puzzles” we set for him, he will start reverting to a “prey animal” mentality when he encounters pressure. The pressure got to be so overwhelming and frightening that now he just thinks he needs to worry about his own survival in learning situations. At this stage it can be difficult to regain the horse’s trust and re-set his ideas about learning.
Too little pressure and the horse can learn that ignoring pressure is the best way to make it go away. Think of the child’s school horse who has tolerated so many beginners bumping around on his back that he has become quite dull to the leg. The child squeezes his legs, then kicks, then KICKS and still the horse ambles along. Experience has taught him that the child will give up before the pressure becomes intolerable. He has learned that a couple of kicks is not as uncomfortable as the effort of trotting around the ring with an unbalanced bouncing child on his back! This sort of horse is usually fairly un-reactive and therefore good for timid or beginning riders, but he has learned to out-wit or out-last pressure and often doesn’t have a high opinion of human intelligence! To help this horse become more responsive and motivated, it will take consistent and patient use of escalating phases of pressure.
Imagine for a moment a game show where the contestant must choose between two doors. Behind one is $1000 prize. Behind the other is an axe murderer. Play this game a few times, and you may start to feel that the risk and fright of an encounter with the axe murderer is not worth the potential of a measly $1000. You would not want to play the game, and if you did, it would be in a state of extreme anxiety—not an ideal state for learning. This can help you feel what your horse feels if you apply too much pressure in learning situations.
Now what if both doors held $1000? Would there be any incentive in choosing one door over the other? No, you’d walk to the nearest door with no mental energy expended whatsoever and collect your prize. This is how your horse sees it when you don’t apply enough pressure. You may know that standing still at the mounting block is the “right” answer, but if it’s just as easy for him to walk around the mounting block, that may be his choice.
Suppose now that the doors lead to the $100 on one hand and a room containing mosquitoes on the other. The “wrong” choice is uncomfortable, but not dangerous, and the reward for choosing correctly is meaningful. You would play enthusiastically and without fear, getting smarter and smarter about the clues that would lead you to pick the correct door and get your reward.
Think of applying pressure in terms of how many mosquitoes to add to the room. If your horse is very, very sensitive, just one mosquito might be enough to help him realize he’s chosen the wrong door & he should try another one. If your horse is dull, you should still start with one mosquito, and then add more gradually until you find the discomfort threshold that is motivating enough for him to get up and try a different door. With repetition, it will take fewer and fewer mosquitoes because the promise of more mosquitoes will motivate him to change his behavior.
Unlike a human, to whom we can explain the game, in the beginning the horse will not necessarily know there are two rooms. Unless the “wrong” room is a little uncomfortable, he won’t know he should seek something better. As the horse continues to play the game of pressure and release with a skillful handler, even the lack of release/reward is enough… no mosquitoes are necessary! The horse opens the door, sees that the room does not contain the $100 and moves on to the next door. In the dog training world, this is known as “offering behaviors.” So we would like our horse to learn that a behavior that does not get a release is not the right one, and he should try something else. In this way, pressure and release of pressure used skillfully can help our horse see every learning situation as a game with a right answer to be found.