Training Mythunderstandings:
Pressure is Relative

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

When people first start playing with the concept of using pressure and release to show a horse what they want, they often mythunderstand pressure from the horse’s perspective. They may go to a clinic where they watched someone chasing a horse with a lariat or waving a longe whip in the direction of its hocks. They leave with the impression that that if they go home and do that same thing with their horse, they’ll eventually get the same result as the clinician. When it doesn’t work, they can’t figure out what they missed.

The problem is that they didn’t understand exactly what pressure is and how the pressures we use change as a horse moves up the training tree. A pressure is anything that gets a horse’s attention. Pressure can be a very relative thing depending on the horse’s personality and its individual degree of reactivity. Horses will react differently to the same pressures relative to their current level of understanding or training and their previous experiences with you or other people.

That horse at home may be on a completely different spot along the startle continuum than the horse they watched at the demonstration. Just a person’s presence creates a certain degree of pressure on a horse. But the human presence that might make a mustang harden its nostrils and show the whites of its eyes may not get much more than the turn of an ear from that seasoned pleasure gelding. When you crack a whip, it may be way too much fuss for one horse and he’ll flee the county while another horse may ignore it altogether.

I once read an article about a guy who corralled a herd of particularly wily mustangs by just quietly pushing them from 3 miles back. He’d figured out how to put just enough pressure on them to keep their attention and he knew how to apply that pressure to keep them moving in the direction he wanted them to go. A big part of a trainer’s job is to learn how to read each individual horse. You have to figure out what degree of what kinds of pressures are going to be just enough to get the horse’s attention without startling him or raising his tension level in any way.

The clinic horse may also have been at a very different level in its training. As a horse progresses through the training tree, we start with teaching pressures that show the horse something we want him to do. Then we introduce directing pressures that ask him what we want. Once the horse understands what we are showing and asking, then we can start to tell him what we want. At that point, we can add enforcing pressures that are a little more demanding when the horse ignores what we’ve just told him. So if you were watching a clinician applying enforcing pressures to a horse that was ignoring him, you’re going to have a wreck if you go home and apply that degree of pressure to a horse that still doesn’t understand the basics of what you are showing or asking him to do.

Emotionally, the horse reacts to anything sudden or unusual the same way he would to an attack by a predator. So if the horse startles or tenses or tries to flee or fight in any way, the pressure you applied was too forceful for that horse in that situation. The horse perceived it as sudden or unusual, as an attack by something predatory, and he reacted. So it’s important to introduce any pressure to the horse in a manner and to a degree that keeps his emotional level calm and his body relaxed.

Horse memories are emotional and they relate to the feeling that a particular set of circumstances created in him the last time he encountered it. When that thing or circumstance or person appears again in their environment, they don’t stop and think about it. They automatically react with that associated emotion.

People have other levels of memory and thinking that allow them to intentionally control their emotions and how they choose to display them. The horse just reacts. Take the bushes the horse has walked by hundreds of times that just got trimmed way back. The rider sees that the bushes are different and registers a little surprise or curiosity or maybe irritation because he liked the bushes the way they were. But he also realizes it’s not a big deal and immediately goes back to just riding along. The horse, however, sees something different and unusual in his environment. It’s going to raise his emotional level. Same deal with that new mailbox. The degree to which he reacts is going to depend on a bunch of other things including his personality, the kind of relationship he has with his rider, and his past experience with new things in his environment.

Horses are also patternistic. When the same pattern repeats itself over and over during their training, it starts to trigger an expectation of a particular emotional memory. We can use this trait to get the horse comfortable with unusual things in his environment. A trainer can condition the horse’s emotional reaction patterns to things in its environment by introducing unusual things (which creates pressure) by tiny degrees making sure that the horse stays calm and relaxed before increasing the pressure and making it “louder.” So you can gradually get the horse to the point where he doesn’t pay much attention to blowing papers and tarps and bicycles and whatever you want. You can call it sacking out or despooking or whatever. You create the feeling in the horse that when he is with you, he is safe, even when something unusual shows up on the horizon. And you create that emotional pattern by never ever putting a pressure on the horse that startles or interrupts or creates tension or raises the excitement level in any way. That’s why good training is so boring to watch.

If you use loud pressures, you may get a job done in the short term. You can see examples of that at the end of any horse show if you stand around and watch people loading their horses on trailers. They may get their horse on the trailer but they do not create a calm, relaxed emotional pattern that you can ask the horse to repeat again at any time. In fact, they probably create just the opposite feeling about the trailer than the one they’d like the horse to have.

Keep in mind that anything that gets the horse’s attention is a pressure. It might be no more than your presence in the middle of an arena, or a hand motion, or a click or a kiss. It might be a twirl or a flick or the tap of a lariat or a longe line or a whip. It might be a bit or your leg or a spur. Figure out the smallest amount of pressure you need to apply to show or ask or tell the horse what you want. For example, sometimes I’ll whistle or hum to remind myself to stay in a particular rhythm and tempo. When I want to get the horse’s attention, all I have to do is stop whistling or humming and they notice something is different. That interruption in the pattern creates a tiny pressure that gets the horse’s attention.

Every time you go to work with your horse, remind yourself that your basic goal is to always have your horse working with rhythm and relaxation. Any pressure that interrupts that feeling of rhythm and relaxation was too strong for that horse at that time. As the horse matures and learns, the kinds of pressures you use and degree to which you can apply them without startling the horse will change. But that basic goal always stays the same.

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Katie O'Toole: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate