Teaching like the herd teaches – pressure and release in training
As a result of how horses are ‘trained’ in the wild or ‘trained’ by other horses in the herd, the basis for most horse training is known as pressure and release.
Horse-to-horse training starts right at the beginning of a horse’s life, where the mare begins to train her foal. She will begin by directing the foal to suckle. Once he’s able to walk she’ll ‘train’ him where and how to move, by applying pressure and releasing it when he complies, then rewarding with nuzzles, licks and nourishment as he learns.
In adult horses, pressure and release in a herd is very easy to spot – especially where a pecking order is being established.
A horse may become annoyed and stressed when pressured by another – she will quickly react (apply pressure) with body language, vocal communication or in more extreme cases, physical reactions like kicking or biting, and will then relax very quickly once the pressure is off. The other horse will also quickly learn what to do and what not to do, having experienced the pressure and release of her reaction and will relax shortly afterwards as well. For the most part, horses tend not to prolong mutual enmity – they learn fast through pressure and release, and once the lesson has been learned once or twice, it generally becomes ingrained. There are obviously exceptions to this, which I will explain in an upcoming herd-dynamics post.
This social pressure and release learning both early (foal and mare) and later (horse and herd) are critical in what makes up the horse behaviorally and psychologically as a teachable animal. It forms the foundation for the majority of how we, as humans, teach and train horses. Horses seek a strong leader in the herd, and it is my job, as their trainer, to become that leader.
How I do it
Firstly (for those who aren’t familiar with the terminology), when I refer to “applying pressure”, I am referring to the aids we commonly use – both on the horse and on the ground. These would be natural aids (eye contact, body language, leg, hand, seat, voice), i.e. my own aids, or the correct and appropriate use of artificial aids. These are tools such as the lead rope, lunge whip, stick and string or crop.
Applying the correct amount of pressure when teaching a horse something new, or helping her unlearn an old behavior, motivates her to search for the answer – it becomes a puzzle for her to solve. When she finds the answer, she gets an immediate release of pressure. So essentially the pressure release is a ‘reward’ and she is learning from being rewarded in this way.
The right amount of pressure is vital and takes some time to learn. Too little pressure and the horse will not be motivated enough to search for an answer. Too much pressure and a couple of things could happen. First, the horse can either get panicked and freeze. When a horse freezes, it’s because she’s become so overwhelmed by the pressure that she can’t use the thinking side of her brain any longer and the flight / fight / freeze instinct has taken over. The second result of too much pressure is that you could lose her trust. This happens when she stops seeing the training as a cerebral game or a puzzle to solve – the pressure now feels like punishment.
How much pressure I use varies hugely, it’s up to us as trainers to gauge how much we need to use in each and every moment in order to achieve the optimal training experience.
Remember, every horse is different, some are relaxed and easy to teach, while others are more highly strung and will require more patience and time. All horses have good days and bad days. Some learn quickly, while others take a little longer to catch on.
Sometimes pressure needs to stay the same or increase while we wait for the horse to figure out the answer and sometimes, we can observe the horse getting too stressed and need to reduce the pressure. These techniques take time to learn, intuition and a good understanding of the behavior and stress and relaxation cues of horses in general. It is best learned from an experienced trainer to begin with, as incorrectly reading your horse and misapplying pressure can make things worse. I will cover stress and relaxation signals in your horse in an upcoming body language post.
From the horse’s perspective
When training, you may be looking for one very specific answer, but your horse will not know this and may try a variety of incorrect “answers” or behaviours /reactions (resistant answers) before he gets the right one.
These ‘wrong’ behaviours or resistant answers can often be interpreted by owners as the horse being naughty or badly behaved and they are likely to get annoyed, which can lead to a breakdown of trust and respect. But remember, he’s not ‘naughty’, he’s learning. He may have a few resistant answers before he finds the one you are asking for. The key here is to hold steady in yourself no matter what your horse is doing. Do not get emotional and angry – centre yourself and remain neutral. Once you have achieved this, you can then use your discretion and decide whether to increase or decrease the amount of pressure needed. Lastly, it’s very important to persevere with the lesson and try not to give up before your horse has given you the right answer.
These images sum up a simple display of pressure and release training on a horse who used to struggle with lunging counterclockwise.