Written by: Josh Nichol
BEST OF 2018! Using well-timed pressure in a non-threatening way can help your horse learn.
The use of pressure is one of the most misunderstood aspects of horse training, causing problems for horses and riders in every discipline. Most of these problems stem from what I call a ‘negative’ use of pressure, meaning that the pressure used creates fear or tension in the horse. Negative pressure functions mainly as a signal that the horse has done something wrong, rather than as a mode of connection. In this article, I will explain how the training style I call “Relational Horsemanship” helps us avoid the negative use of pressure, replacing it with positive pressure that promotes understanding and trust while maximizing performance.
Horses, being prey animals, are extremely wary of threatening stimuli. Therefore, anything we do that a horse perceives as a possible threat – which can range from a human just stepping into view, to any type of physical contact – can function as a form of pressure that the horse will seek to avoid. We use the horse’s sensitivity to pressure to our advantage, as this is a significant part of what enables us to safely handle and train these enormously powerful animals.
Nonetheless, while it is the horse’s nature to initially view any form of pressure as a potential threat, the first goal of Relational Horsemanship is to help the horse understand that our use of pressure is not a threat to their safety. Instead, it is a form of communication designed to draw the horse’s focus to our intentions and empower the horse by promoting thought and creating understanding.
One good way to start helping a horse to think about pressure in a positive way is the simple exercise of teaching the horse to lower his head when you apply a gentle pressure on the lead rope. You start by applying a downward, pulsing pressure on the lead, trying to move with the horse and maintain your pressure consistently if the horse struggles (raises his head, etc.). What you are looking for is a yield in the mind of the horse – not just a movement of the head – because the feel of yield is the physical expression of the mind shifting through muscle. When the horse truly yields, you can see and feel it – even if it is a small yield. At that moment, you release your pressure, and that is when the lightbulb comes on for your horse. Your release marks the right response, teaching the horse that responding to pressure with softness allows him to “control” pressure.
The same technique can and should be applied in everything else you ask of the horse. For example, say you want to teach the horse to start yielding its hindquarters. If you have already established the idea of seeking and receiving softness, you can use the same presentation and feel on the lead, but now direct your energy toward the hip, which will encourage the horse to step the hip over. You can also lift the lead in a bit of an indirect angle toward the hip and/or engage an appropriate degree of pressure from a flag if necessary, but remember that you are not trying to make the horse move. It is your directed energy that conveys your intention – the aids are just there to draw focus to that intention if needed. What you want, in the practice of Relational Horsemanship, is for the horse’s mind to make the connection between your presentation and the response of softness, which allows the horse to yield the hindquarters or any other part of its body without brace or worry.
Providing the horse with this feeling that he can control pressure by softening is actually extremely important, as this meets their primary need, which is to feel safe. A horse taught in this empowering style is able to open his mind to what our pressures are saying and will willingly give his body in response. A horse that doesn’t understand pressure will react to it rather than respond to it, and he will always carry a degree of tension since pressure remains a source of stress.
In order to make your use of pressure stress-free, there are two aspects you need to consider, both of which are part of the “good feel” many horsemen talk about. First, you need to be appropriate in your use of pressure, which means using the right amount and the right type of pressure to help draw the horse’s focus to what you are asking. Too much pressure will scare the horse and make him want to get away from you, leaving him totally unable to “hear” your question. Even if he doesn’t try to flee, subtler signs like a worried eye or raised head indicate that the horse is clicking into self-protection mode because your pressure is too strong, thus threatening your connection. Too little pressure is also detrimental, as it comes across as white noise that muddies your intention and negates your attempt to engage the horse in conversation. Second, you need to have good timing in your release of pressure, as it is the release of pressure is what tells the horse that they “got it right.” Thus, whatever you release on is what you are saying you want the horse to do.
Unfortunately, many people are simply looking for a certain movement of the horse’s body to release on, instead of looking for a yield in the horse’s mind. What this tends to create is a horse that will go through the motions he is asked to perform, but without the softness that is the hallmark of a trusting, solid partnership. The importance of softness, which I define as a willing and fluid responsiveness free of any mental or physical resistance, cannot be overemphasized. It is something I strive for in everything I ask a horse to do, as it is only in a state of softness that we can achieve real connection.
Softness is also critical for both athleticism and long-term soundness, because a horse that is performing without softness cannot fully release into a movement, which impedes balance and causes tension that can have serious physical consequences. This is where the difference between negative and positive pressure becomes so critical, because negative pressure actually makes softness impossible.
If you want to get away from the use of negative pressure, you need to stop thinking of pressure as something used to discipline the horse, force the horse to move, or send the horse away. Pressure should instead help the horse to focus on what you are asking and encourage him to think through your question to find the right answer. Horses quickly “learn how to learn” when you work in this way, and it is truly a beautiful thing to see how they come to enjoy working with us. Engaging with a horse in this open, willing, soft state is where horsemanship becomes an art, and where both we and our horses can be our best selves.
Sometimes, however, even our best-intentioned efforts to use pressure positively still creates a fearful reaction in the horse. Say you meant to ask a horse to move forward quietly, but the horse feels he is being chased and starts to flee. It is important in such moments to stay centered and calm, and to make a change in what you are doing that draws the horse’s mind back to a positive connection. Remember that the horse will only look to you for leadership if you earn it, and you will struggle to earn it if you let difficult moments pull you off centre emotionally.
What it comes down to is that positive pressure seeks to address the horse’s inner needs, which are for clarity, understanding and a sense of peace, rather than simply looking for physical obedience. The goal of any use of pressure must, therefore, be to invite the mental release that creates the physical yield in the horse, as you need both to achieve softness. Rather than trying to “make” the horse do anything, pressure simply empowers your presentation, thus clarifying your intention. Just remember that your intention, in this context, is about more than the thing you want the horse to do. It is also about the way you offer that intention to the horse, and it is your choice as to whether you offer that in a positive or a negative way.