Rethinking the Use of Pressure in Horse Training

bicycle tire and pressure gauge

For the first time, Journey backed with impulsion and perfect form yesterday. Woo-hoo! It’s hard to believe we rescued him almost three years ago because some lessons came s-l-o-w-l-y. His success yesterday was like a piece of birthday cake. (I love cake.) A moment worth savoring. It also led me to reconsider the use of pressure in horse training.

Journey’s back up was pretty. Cadenced. Straight. Hocks and hindquarters engaged. With the diagonal movement we dream of: right front, left hind and left front, right hind. And I didn’t touch him or the reins, creating energy in front of him with a garbage bag duct-taped to a four foot dressage whip.

Sure, Journey backs up under saddle and in hand. But not like he did yesterday. He did what he did because I created the right amount of energy that he then transformed into movement. This was PRETTY!

Horses learn from the release of pressure

If you think horses learn from the release of pressure, you’re right. Teaching and shaping behaviors depends on the application and use of pressure. Some groups within the equine world consider any use of pressure abusive. While I stand with them when it comes to the mis-use of pressure, I believe horses and humans were meant to be interdependent.

That means we live and work together.

Which requires training – for horse and human. Both need a why and a how to succeed, better known as motivation and instruction.

Sometimes motivating your horse seems more about energy than pressure. Some folks think the concept of building energy is easier to understand than the release of pressure.

To some people the distinction is one of semantics. Words, nothing but words. Yet, to other folks, one makes more sense than the other. Humans don’t learn and process concepts the same way. Neither do horses. I learn by seeing and doing. Others by listening or reading. The best teachers know the most ways to teach the same thing.

Learning depends on how lessons are presented

Over the years I trained many riders to post a trot. What I discovered is that riders also differ in how they learn. Some need to think about when to rise while others when to sit.

Up, down, up, down.

Some riders connect with the “up” to get in rhythm with their horse while others connect with the “down.” Attempts to do the opposite completely confuse them. In case you’re wondering, I’m a downie, but versatile. I can teach it either way.

Pressure. Release. Pressure. Release.

To shape a horse’s behavior, you apply pressure until your horse does what you want. Then you release it. Before applying pressure you must set your horse up so that when you ask, his most natural response is the one you want.

Release any pressure the nanosecond your horse does the right thing

Effective training applies the appropriate type and amount of pressure to the correct place. You must release it the nanosecond your horse commits to the right answer. That takes a lot of practice. Every part of your ask has to be right to get the answer you want.

“You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss.” – James 4:3

In simple terms, pressure is a measure of force. The word sounds coercive, but it isn’t. Force itself isn’t a bad thing. What matters is how it’s used.

“Two types of horses are the most difficult to ride: those that are hardly trained and those that are highly trained. The barely trained horse has little ability to give or receive effective communication and the highly-trained horse is acutely responsive to tiny, often imperceptible, cues. Two ounces of excess pressure on a highly-tuned horse may result in a big, completely unexpected response. Two ounces of added pressure on the barely trained horse may get you no response at all.” – Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace

Types of pressure used to train horses

  • Psychic pressure – emotional pressure, such as getting too close to the horse for his comfort.
  • Implied pressure – suggesting a behavior or response using voice or body language.
  • Contact – physically touching the horse.

A positional challenge can be either psychic or implied. Where and how close you stand to a horse may create positional challenge. Horses who back or turn away when you approach react to the pressure of your changing position. The horse’s response may be your intentional result of implied pressure. Or, the uncomfortable result of psychic pressure.

The first time Bo (one of my amazing grays) and I met in the round pen when he was two years old…

Once he learned that he had the power to make the pressure of my positional challenge go away, and that the right answer was to turn and quietly face me, we established a beginning.” – Amazing Grays, Amazing Grace

Horses must always have a choice. Obedience is a gift. Gifts are optional.

Types of energy used to train horses

  • Kinetic energy relates to an object in motion. Which is why it’s more difficult to stop a runaway horse than one ambling along at a lazy walk.
  • Potential energy relates to an object’s position or structure. Horse’s skeletal and muscular structure is a storehouse of potential energy. The design of a bit determines the amount of potential energy it can apply.

Energy is convertible from one form to another. Potential energy is packaged and directed into kinetic energy by the horse’s movements. How much energy you generate correlates to the amount of energy your horse expends.

Motivation provides the why; the want to. The garbage bag motivated Journey to match the energy of his response to the energy I created. If you’re not getting similar results with your horse (or teenager) you haven’t hit on the right motivator.

Training is a lot about creating and directing energy. Applying energy just sounds nicer than applying pressure. But it works the same way. I create energy in front of Journey to energize his feet or apply pressure to the air in front of him. They’re just different sides of the same coin.

Removing pressure sounds like something is deflating. Take the pressure from a car tire and it’s flat. We do that a lot with horses. We stop asking and deflate any energy. We quit. The horse quits.

Experiment using energy instead of pressure

When’s the last time you powered into a walk from a trot? Effective downward gait transitions reshape energy, not completely release it.

Journey needs to repeat the exercise that produced his spectacular back up multiple times. He needs to build both muscle and psychic memory of what’s right before I refine my ask. How long it takes depends on how quickly the next lessons come and how precisely I am.

Instead of applying pressure to Journey I created energy. The change was amazing because I intended to create energy – to charge the air in front of him. To build an imaginary bubble and pressurize it. Journey matched the energy created and the result was beautiful.

If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else

It’s tempting to think our non-responsive horse is stubborn. Or insensitive. Or obtuse. Or dull, heavy, and a poor prospect. In reality, we haven’t learned how to ask correctly and offer the right motivation.

Whether you think pressure-release or create-energy, if what you’re doing isn’t working the way you intend, try the opposite. Journey’s fabulous back up is the result of me doing what he needed, not what I usually do. Maybe I’ve been teaching him “up” when he’s really a downie like me.

Changing how you think about horse training can change the outcome. Consider it play. A bonding opportunity. A game of “what happens if…” **

Above all, enjoy the time you spend with your horse. No matter what label you use. It’s a blessing and a gift from God.

**  “What happens if…” – otherwise known as Question Number Two. Found in Discipleship with Horses and The Art of Getting to Yes.

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Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

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