Training Tools I: Psychological Pressuresby Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
The training system we call heeding at Meredith Manor uses methodically applied directional pressures that the horse feels as a shape we want him to take. Training is that simple. And it is that complex.
"Methodically applied directional pressures that the horse feels as a shape" looks like just one short sentence but it is actually quite a big statement. When we are training students to be trainers, the first thing they learn is how to define what the horse feels as a pressure. If you cannot define what the horse understands as a pressure, you certainly cannot apply it, much less apply it in a methodical fashion so that it suggests a direction and a shape to the horse.
Notice that I did not say 'what the trainer intends as a pressure.' How the horse perceives the pressure and reacts to it is all that matters. Then the trainer can analyze the horse's reaction, modify the pressure and methodically apply it a little differently to make things clearer to the horse. Most people repeat and repeat a pressure expecting that, if they just repeat it enough, the horse will eventually 'get' whatever it is they want him to do. That is not training. That is wishful thinking because any constant pressure, like a girth, just goes away as far as the horse feeling it. So the only thing that is eventual is that the horse will ignore the pressure altogether.
So the first thing students who want to train horses need to learn about is the range of pressures available to them to influence the horse. Then they need learn to learn how to apply those pressures in a methodical way that suggests a direction the horse should move and a shape he should take.
'Methodically applied' means that the application of a pressure or sequence of pressures is purposeful. The pressures are not random. They are horse-logical and the connection between one pressure and a new pressure is never more than one or two steps away from what the horse already understands. 'Directional' means that the pressure clearly suggest to the horse that he move straight, sideways, turn through a corner or stay on a circle, step back or stop, etc. A 'shape' means that the horse feels the pressure as a physical suggestion of a posture or gait or speed or rhythm, etc.
To help students start understanding pressures, we categorize the range of pressures available to a trainer as either psychological or physical. Both kinds of pressure can push the horse away from you, pull the horse toward you, or interrupt whatever happens to be going on at the time. A trainer uses those reactions to build a vocabulary of pressures that can gradually be combined into different behavior patterns.
Military boot camps train recruits to react to directions from officers by creating an atmosphere of fear and rewards. The rewards are not very big rewards but they are rewards, nonetheless. Training horses uses psychological pressure in much the same way. For example, the very first thing a trainer needs to do is to get the horse's attention. He or she does that by putting a little bit of psychological pressure on the horse then removing it as soon as the horse notices it. The horse eventually gets into the habit of paying attention to the trainer and eventually develops the understanding that the pressure goes away when he reacts to it a certain way.
A trainer can exert psychological pressure on a horse in hundreds of ways. The way the trainer approaches the horse in its stall, any intended or unintended body language, the pitch or volume of voice, the trainer's pace and all kinds of other subtle things are perceived as pressures by a horse. In groundwork here at Meredith Manor, students learn how easy it is for them to influence a horse by paying attention to where they are relative to the horse's primary and secondary lines.
The horse's personality has a lot to do with how he feels or accepts psychological pressure. Some personalities are always looking for danger or excitement while others are totally uninterested in anything unless it is the end of the world or edible. So the trainer applies different psychological pressures, observes the reaction, and then modifies the pressure. In a psychological context, how the horse feels the trainer's presence is pretty important. The trainer wants the horse to feel like he or she is the safest place for the horse to be other than their stall or with their herd buddies.
Watching horses interact socially is one of the best ways to learn about how they use and react to psychological pressures. The easiest thing for a trainer to do is to learn to speak this 'horse language' because it is easier to speak to a horse in a language he naturally understands rather than teaching him to speak English.
Most students arrive with a greater understanding of the physical pressures available to them than they do of the psychological ones. But the psychological ones are the ones every horse already understands even before any trainer steps into the arena with them. So, in the beginning, we do a lot of heeding groundwork so the horses can teach the students to pay attention to what they are really 'saying' to the horse. As the students learn to speak horse, they can actually ask the horse to do things and get the reaction they want. And things just get better from there.
Heeding goes on forever because as long as a trainer keeps working with different horses with different personalities he or she will continue to learn more and more of the nuances of psychological pressures. When a trainer 'gets it' and heeding simply becomes a part of how they interact with every horse, every horse they work with 'gets it', too.