Pressure is an interesting concept; it can be movement of your hands, waving a training stick with a flag, wiggling the end of a lead rope, or even your posture. And within each of these there are varying degrees of pressure. A good example is your posture, from standing still to jumping up and down like a gymnast. Pressure is used to get a horse to do something, desensitization, or as an excercise. But mainly we use pressure to work with the horse to follow a feel.
There is a difference between desensitizing a horse by using pressure and teaching a horse lightness through feel by using the concepts discussed below. Even when desensitizing, you have to work your way through levels of pressure, you just may go to a “big place” for a different reason than when you work for lightness through feel.
Pressure for desensitization
An important point to make about pressure is that horses need to be exposed to a wide range of “pressure situations”. This might sound like a contradiction of everything that you have been taught. Your day to day handling of your horse should minimize pressure, but you must occasionally experiment with different pressure situations for training or to desensitize your horse. A quiet calm person may be their own worst enemy when it comes to working their horse in high stress (pressure) situations. What may be big pressure to them i.e. waving their hands is nothing like what we would consider big pressure — shooting a gun at a gallop of horseback, having a mountain bike come up behind us, or meeting a motorcycle on the trail. Many people believe that you should never stimulate a horse to the point where they have to be uncomfortable with a situation. We would strongly disagree with this for a couple of reasons:
1). A horse that is always “protected” from pressure will likely blow up real big in high stress situations.
2). You can’t always control the environment that you and your horse will be exposed to. It’s best to work out big pressure situations in a controlled environment where you can at least control some of the variables.
Pressure and feel
This use of pressure is definitely a good use of the “less is more” principle. One of the toughest parts for people to understand is that pressure is almost always associated with release. Your responsibility as a good horseman is to recognize appropriate behavior immediatley when it happens and then reward your horse — normally this is through an instant release and a pet or scratch. If you miss the behavior or a try towards that behavior it’s your fault, not the horses. You must become an adept at “reading your horse” in order to follow through with appropriate timing.
Pressure is a tough thing to explain because a lot of people may read this and think that if things aren’t working out right with their horse, all they have to do is increase the pressure and make the situation bigger until the horse gives in. That’s not the case though. You want to adjust what you do so that you use as little pressure as possible. We can’t emphasize this enough! The examples we use below explain how to bring pressure up through the levels to get a braced or resistant horse to cooperate. Always use as little pressure as possible and only what you need to get the job done.
Levels of Pressure
The idea is to get the result you are after and then refine it to the point where you can use the minimal amount of pressure to get that result. In the contiuum of training your horse, every thing that you do can be treated this way. One of the best examples that I can think of is teaching your horse to stop off your seat. You should always use the cue of “quitting to ride” or going from an active seat to “sitting in your back pockets”. Not many horses are going to know what this means right from the start, they could get lucky and figure this out right away — but it’s not likely. What’s important about this is that you ALWAYS give the horse this cue first because that’s where you eventually want to be. You may have to use some other cues (pressure) to get the horse to respond to what you are asking. But if you are consistent, the horse is going to think about what happened and pretty soon you can start taking away some of the more extreme cues because the horse will begin to associate you quitting to ride to mean that you want him to stop.
The important thing to remember with any of these methods is that you need to meet the resistance of the horse with a corresponding correction. By this we mean that if the horse is putting 100 pounds of pressure into you, you will need to respond with at least 101 pounds of pressure, or find a way to simulate bigger pressure. This is an important thing to remember. We work with a lot of people that aren’t physically strong enough to yield a horse. The proper use of training tools and posture can make up for the fact that you can’t push a 1200 pound horse if he doesn’t want to move. You have to meet the resistance of the horse with as much pressure as it takes to counteract what the horse is giving you. And you have to be prepared to take this to whatever level the horse is giving you. The trick is not to get mad, but to stay focused on the task at hand.
Example – Yielding Backwards off of Pressure
A good example of using a pressure to get a desired result would be asking a horse to back up. There are different levels of pressure and corresponding corrections that you can use to get the result you are after. These examples are not a concrete step by step recipe, they are merely examples of a way to increase the pressure to get a result from the horse.
We usually start our horses working backwards off of feel from our hands before we ever work them on the end of a lead rope. This gives us a head start because we know that the horse can move off of a feel.
The above pictures show yielding the horse at the nose to move off of pressure and at the chest. They are different excercises but they are aimed at the same result — getting the horse to move off of the least amount of pressure possible.
Even though you may get good results such as the above examples, you really need to work on yielding using the lead rope. The following example explains how to bring the levels of pressure up to do a job.
This is our ideal low pressure situation. It’s a horse that will move away from you because you gave him a “dirty” look or walked into his space. A common way for a horse to yield another horse backwards is a flick of the head when they are standing nose to nose. Believe it or not, many people can do this with their horses. This is a minimal amount of pressure. It’s what we should all be working for.
Ideally, you should be able to move your horse off of pressure but to have the ability to draw the horse back to you with posture. What this means is that if you ask the horse to do a job like backing up, you should also be able to bring the horse back to you with your posture. An example of this would be standing in a non-threatening posture; lower your shoulders, take a step backwards, turn your body to the side — becoming a partner not a predator. I also like to offer the back of my hand to the horse as a “handshake” to greet the horse.
As you already know, not every horse will yield backwards off of slight pressure when you first start to work with them. This doesn’t mean that you should instantly go to the maximum amount of pressure to get the job done. Many people start at level 10 and work backwards to the minimum amount of pressure. There is a much better way to teach this to the horse, you want to start out with the minimum (where you want to be when you’re all done with your horse) and if necessary work up to higher levels of pressure.
OK, so we are working with our “practice” horse and we want to get her to yield backwards. Ideally, the horse should move with about an ounce of pressure or very slight wiggle on the lead rope. Watch for any sign of backwards movement, a rock backwards or movement in the rear feet. Reward any try with an immediate release on the lead rope and pet your horse. Ask for this first, and if the horse doesn’t respond appropriately, move on to the next level.
Ask the horse to move off of your posture first, then ask with a slight wiggle on the lead rope (pressure level 2). With a horse that won’t move, you may need to bring up the pressure by wiggling the lead rope more vigorously. You may even get to the point where you are aggressively wiggling the lead rope.
Again, watch for any sign of backwards movement and reward any try with an immediate release on the lead rope and pet your horse.
What do you do with a horse that simply will not yield no matter how much energy or pressure you send down the lead rope? If the horse doesn’t respond appropriately, move on to the next level.
Again, ask the horse to move off of your posture first, then ask with a slight wiggle on the lead rope (pressure level 2). Work your way through levels one, two, and three — bring up the pressure by wiggling the lead rope more vigorously. If that doesn’t get movement, then you will get to aggressively wiggling the lead rope. If that doesn’t work, try popping the lead rope by sending one big energy wave down the lead rope. Again, watch for any sign of backwards movement and reward any try with an immediate release on the lead rope and pet your horse. If the horse doesn’t respond appropriately, move on to the next level.
For difficult horses, and by this we mean horses that are so braced and resistant that they may as well have their feet planted in concrete because they aren’t going to yield. You need to take the pressure up yet another notch.
Again, use posture first and then ask with a slight wiggle on the lead rope — work your way up through the levels of pressure that you used before you got to this point. You can use your body & posture to physically get “bigger” by standing taller, throwing out your chest and walking assertively at the horse while wiggling the lead rope. Then work backwards to as little pressure as possible to get the horse to move. You may have to use a lot of energy with the lead at first while doing this. Don’t walk into a horse that is rearing or striking out — this is not only dangerous, but deadly. If the horse doesn’t respond move on to the next level.
Ask with a slight wiggle on the lead rope first and work your way up through the levels of pressure that you used before you got to this point.. Then, stand directly in front of the horse about 2 feet off of the nose. Use a hand motion similar to what the flight crew on an aircraft carrier does with both hands (this is hard to describe) to guide an airplane in. If you were an Atlanta Braves baseball fan I would tell you to do the “tomahawk chop” with both hands while holding the lead rope between your hands. You are asking your horse to back up with pressure from your hands and the lead rope. If the horse doesn’t respond appropriately, move on to the next level.
Again, ask with posture first, then a slight wiggle on the lead rope and work your way up through the levels of pressure that you used before you got to this point. If the horse still doesn’t move, use the hand motion in level 6 but add the movement of the lead rope by rolling it over in a circular motion directed at the horses nose. If the horse doesn’t respond appropriately, move on to the next level.
Pressure Level 8
If the horse still doesn’t move, ask with posture first, then a slight wiggle on the lead rope and work your way up through the levels of pressure that you used before you got to this point. Use the hand motion in levels 6 & 7 but add the movement of the lead rope by rolling it over in a circular motion directed at the horses nose. If you have to, use this same rolling motion with your hands and the lead rope to make light contact with the horse’s nose. Don’t make contact with the horse unless you have to.
This may startle the horse, but it will move off the pressure. Try this again without making contact. You will quickly get the horse to learn to move off of pressure if you reward the appropriate behavior. What you are after is your horse moving backwards with you moving both hands directed at the horse’s nose. You want to be able to do this very lightly. If the horse doesn’t respond move on to the next level.
Pressure Level 9
If you really get stuck you may have to use a pretty aggressive energy check with the lead rope. If you have ever worked cattle with a lariat, it would be similar to throwing the lariat with a backhand loop. Give the horse the opportunity to do the job by asking with a slight wiggle on the lead rope. Then direct the energy of the rope at the jawbone or cheek of the horse. The horse will think that the rope ran into them. They don’t think that this is something that you did to them, but they will should move off from this pressure.
What to do if this still doesn’t work…
So, you get the idea. You may have to increase the pressure to get the horse to respond. In many cases, even bringing the pressure up to “Level 10” doesn’t work. Are there better ways to get the message through to the horse? Sure, but you don’t always do things the “best” way every time. Every one of us can probably think of a time when we did something one way and thought it was the right or only way of doing things. How many times have you analyzed a situation after the fact and said “I should have done…..”.
Working this same “problem horse” off of another horse would be a good example of a better way of dealing with this situation. Horses already know how to yield another horse, and if you have a horse that has the attitude and ability to work another horse from up top you could have made this an easier job. This is just an example of one way to take a situation that may seem hopeless to one person but easily fixed by another. Once you get the feet free and moving softly, then you could go back to the ground work excercises.
If you’re like us, you have a core set of tools that you use when working with horses. Every once in a while someone will come along and show us something that works better than what we have been doing. We don’t abandon the original way of doing things. We add it to our “toolbox” and use it when needed. Pretty soon, your original set of tools has expanded to include a variety of things that you can use in different situations. This is where you should be headed.
If you get your mind set on what you perceive as the only way of training because you read it in someone’s book or saw it at a clinic, you’re limiting your abilities as a horseman. There is no recipe book to follow for working horses. We should all try some different things in our training programs.
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