• Laura

Understanding Pressure

pres·sure /ˈpreSHər/


1.the continuous physical force exerted on or against an object by something in contact with it. "the slight extra pressure he applied to her hand"

2.the use of persuasion, influence, or intimidation to make someone do something. "the proposals put pressure on Britain to drop its demand"

synonyms:coercion, force, compulsion, constraint, duress


1.attempt to persuade or coerce (someone) into doing something.

The previous definition comes from a Google search for the word "pressure". Reading the dictionary entry for the word, it doesn't sound like anything applicable in horsemanship. However, call it what you may, pressure--more specifically, the properly timed application pressure and its subsequent release--is the medium through which all horsemanship is made possible. Pressure is how we talk to our horses, whether it's advertent or inadvertent, and release of pressure is what teaches them the appropriate response to our requests.

In general terms, “pressure” refers to any change in the homeostasis of an animal’s environment. If a creature feels no pressure, then it is in a static state of normalcy and does not have any reason, impetus or desire to change anything about its current condition. Pressure will most frequently lead to an attempt to regain homeostasis because this is the state that all matter strives to exist in. When a creature is constantly exposed to pressure that it has no way of escaping, it will eventually normalize this pressure so that its wellbeing is no longer affected by it as it becomes incorporated into part of that creature’s state of homeostasis.

Now, if we were to describe what it means to train a horse in one sentence, we could sum it up by saying all horse training is an attempt to sensitize our horses to certain kinds of pressure and desensitize them to others. Not only do we want our horses to notice and respond to certain applications of pressure, we want them to respond in a particular way. A horse that consistently and favorably responds to the deliberate applications of different kinds of pressure, while simultaneously ignoring other, unavoidable and coincidental pressures is a well-trained horse.

The ways in which we apply pressure to our horses are many, but all can be fit into one of the four following categories:

  1. Pressure applied directly from our body to that of our horse, for example, pushing on their ribcage with a finger to get him to step over for grooming.

  2. Pressure applied to the horse’s body through a medium, such as a whip, spur, or rein.

  3. Verbal or audial pressure, such as a voice command, a cluck, or a crack of a whip.

  4. Pressure that can’t be physically felt, such as body language, or pressurizing the horse through changing your position relative to his, or eye contact. This is one of the harder types of pressure to understand for humans, but is probably the most-used form of communication between animals.

To obtain and maintain a well-trained horse, we must enact a training plan that effectively sensitizes him to our “aids” (i.e. the deliberate application of certain kinds of pressure with the intention of eliciting a particular response) and desensitizes him to other stimuli. While the particulars of our training plans may look different depending on our specific end goals, they must all share a few universal characteristics in order to be be successful.

One of the most important things to keep in mind as we work with our animals is that horses do not learn from the application of pressure—they learn from its release. This is an important enough concept that I will repeat it: horses don’t learn from the application of pressure—they learn from the release of pressure. More specifically, they learn from the timing of the release of pressure, because the timing of your release is what tells the horse when he responded correctly.

What does this mean for us as the trainer/rider? It means we must be deliberate in and aware of the message we are sending our horse through the release of our aids. It also means that we need to learn to “listen” to our horses as much as we “talk” to them. What good does it do to make a request if you’re never aware of when that request has been fulfilled? Lack of awareness is probably the number one reason that riders are not releasing the pressure with good timing. Let’s look at three examples of what poor timing of a pressure release looks like.

The first example is one I see all the time when teaching green riders the sidepass. I instruct them to apply pressure with their leg to the girth area of their horse until he takes a step sideways. Inevitably, the first step the horse takes will not be to the side as the student intended, but rather a step forward if the rider’s hands are too weak or a step backward if the student’s hands are too strong. Without exception, the students’ instinct is to cease applying the leg aid as soon as the horse responds in an “unexpected” way, the human logic being that they didn’t want the horse to do what he did, so they must stop whatever it is that they are doing and try again. Now, the next time the student applies the same leg aid with the intention of eliciting a sideways step, the horse will respond exactly—and incorrectly—as he did the first time. From the horse’s perspective, whatever equivocal response he first offered must be what the rider wants since it was upon performing that particular action that the pressure was removed.

The second example is a fictitious one, although it has surely occurred to more than one horse owner or trainer. A rider starting her horse under saddle for the first time discovers that the horse has the desire to buck when she tightens the girth around his middle and asks him to move his feet. Unfortunately for this rider, she has not inspected her tack and her off-side billet strap was old and brittle. As the horse escalates his attempts to remove the offending pressure (the saddle), the sudden release provided to him by the billet breaking and saddle flying free has “trained” him that bucking was the “right” answer to the pressure applied by the girth.

The last example of poor timing on the release of pressure takes place on a dude-ranch horse ridden by inexperienced tourists day-in and day-out. After years and years of rider after green rider getting on and squeezing with their legs, pulling at his mouth with bouncy hands and shifting their weight and balance in all sorts of ways as they take pictures or talk with their friends, this horse has learned that all of these kinds of pressure are inconsequential. In his earlier days, he may have tried to respond to each bounce of the tourists’ hand or squeeze of leg, but after several rides where he never received a release from the inadvertent “aids” even after performing the action that he thought they wanted, the poor animal has learned to tune out all of the “noise” coming from the saddle. Never getting the release he was seeking taught him to ignore the pressure.

What these examples all have in common is that they illustrate how poor timing of the release of pressure can have ill effects on a horse’s training and athletic development; however the exact nature of those ill effects varies in each anecdote. In the first, the horse has been sensitized in the wrong way. We wanted the horse to respond, but not the way he initially offered, showing that we must time our release to the desired action and not just to any action on the part of the horse. What this would look like in our sidepass example is that the riders would not cease to apply the leg aid if the horse walked forward or backward instead of sideways; rather, they would adjust their hands in order to discourage the horse from performing incorrectly. If the horse moved forward, they would employ a stronger rein aid and if the horse moved backwards, they would need to apply a lighter rein aid. When the rider has taken away the horse’s other options for movement but has continued to apply (or in some cases, increase) the original pressure, the horse will continue to search for the right answer and eventually step sideways, at which time the rider will reward the animal by releasing the pressure of the leg.

Another common mistake students commit when learning a new move such as a sidepass is they don’t apply enough pressure or for long enough to give the horse a chance to respond before they give up, releasing the pressure and saying, “It didn’t work!” When the students release the pressure before the horse has responded, what they are telling the horse is that that particular cue means nothing and he doesn’t have to respond to it in the future. In either scenario, the horse has been inadvertently “trained” that the wrong “answer” is the right one because of the poorly-timed release of pressure.

In the second example, the horse has become sensitized to a pressure to which he ought to have been desensitized. The pressure of the girth around the middle should not elicit a response in a finished riding horse, so the only way to achieve this is to make sure that the saddle stays on the horse until he ignores it completely. Without a release of the pressure around his middle, no matter what he may do, the horse learns that the saddle doesn’t mean anything and will eventually forget it’s there.

It’s easy to see how equipment failures can often have far-reaching, unfortunate consequences for an animal in training. Another common place this sort of unintentional sensitizing occurs is at the hitching rail. Many a horse has learned that pulling back at the hitching rail is desirable behavior because he once broke away (thus releasing the pressure) while standing tied.

In our final example, the dude ranch horse has been desensitized to most kinds of pressure out of necessity for his job. An accomplished rider on this horse would have a frustratingly difficult time eliciting the responses that he seeks because the horse would be so “dead to the aids” that it would take an incredibly strong “request” for the horse to realize that he was being “spoken” to. It’s interesting to note that the terminology employed to describe horses who’ve been inadvertently mishandled so that they become desensitized to the very pressures they should be sensitive to—“dead to the aids,” “hard-mouthed,” “runs through the bit,” “heavy,” “dead-sided,” “unresponsive”—never implicates the rider culpability that is the true root of the problem.

Now that we have seen a few examples of less-than-ideal releases of pressure, let’s examine what the well-trained horse and his rider ought to look like and how their communication takes place to maintain his sensitivity to the aids while fostering his non-responsiveness to all other forms of incidental pressure. A well-trained horse should be easily caught and haltered, then led so that his footfalls are in synch what his handler’s, without the the handler having to remove slack from the lead rope. The only time the handler would apply pressure through the lead rope would be if the horse needed a momentary correction, for example, if he didn’t stop the instant the handler stopped. This pressure would be released the second the horse was back where he was supposed to be next to the one leading him. The horse would stand tied quietly at the rail to be groomed and tacked, the various sensations of grooming tools and tack meaning nothing to him. He will, nevertheless, respond quickly and obediently to a mere touch of the finger as a request to move over enough to make room for the handler to access the other side of the his body. How the horse distinguishes between the pressure applied by the brushes and the pressure applied with the tip of a finger is mysterious; but remember that he can feel a fly land on him, so it’s no wonder he can tell a request from a dandy brush!

The well-trained horse will stand quietly to be mounted. He should be so desensitized to the feel of humans fumbling with his stirrups and hauling themselves aboard that he could practically take a nap as his rider climbs up and settles in. Only upon the rider picking up the reins and applying the familiar squeeze of her calves to move off will the horse awaken from his near-slumbering state and immediately depart at the speed and in the gait requested by his handler. It should take very little effort on the rider’s part to get the response she desires—more than a gentle squeeze, imperceptible to onlookers, would be excessive.

What would our hypothetical handler do in the event of a non-response by the horse when she makes a request—for example, when she wants the horse to move over at the hitching rail to groom the other side of his body and the horse does nothing when she asks him to do so with the lightest touch of her finger? What now? In this case, the handler may employ what I call the “whisper, whisper, SHOUT, whisper” method. In order to maintain a horse’s sensitivity to certain kinds of pressure, we always start with smallest aid possible—this should be the aid that we wish for the finished horse to respond to. This aid is the “whisper” because it’s the subtlest, “quietest” aid that the handler would ideally use to communicate her wish to the horse. If the horse doesn’t respond or responds incorrectly (assuming he’s already been taught what the request means), I personally will give him one more chance to respond using the same “whisper” aid a second time. Some trainers will jump immediately to the “shout” at this point, their reasoning being they don’t want the horse to think that he can wait for the aid to be repeated to obey, but since I tend to believe that horses are very rarely willfully disobedient I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that maybe they were napping or distracted and give them another chance to respond to the “whisper.”

If the second “whisper” is ignored, then I will progress immediately to the “shout.” In the example of asking a horse to move himself over at the hitching rail so you may access the other side of his body, this may be a solid “whap” of the hand or a hard poke with the end of a dressage whip. The exact “shout” you use will depend upon your own confidence as a handler and what you’re comfortable doing as well as the horse’s training, background and temperament, but the important thing is that it’s a request that the horse is sure to respond to quickly and accurately (if not a bit dramatically). Upon his responding to the “shout”, we praise the horse for his correct “answer,” and then immediately go back to ask the same thing again using the original “whisper.” This final “whisper” is important to bring the lesson back around full circle and make sure the horse understands that the “shout” was a consequence of his not listening to the “whisper:” We want to practice the “whisper” aid one last time to make sure that we end with the horse responding to the lightest of possible aids, and then of course we praise him as if he just solved the world’s hunger problem as soon as he responds correctly. Once the horse understands that the handler is serious enough to “shout” should he ignore the “whisper” he is very unlikely to ignore the quietest of aids in the future! If we continue to allow the horse to ignore our whispers, he will eventually just tune us out altogether as he realizes that our whispers don’t necessarily mean anything.

In summary, if we want a horse that is a joy to handle and be around, it is important to understand how our applications of pressure—and, most important, our releases of applications of pressure—affect our horse’s level of sensitization and ultimately his training.

Some dos and don’ts of pressure

DO apply as much pressure as needed to get the response you’re looking for, even if this means you must “shout” with your aids.

DON’T apply even one ounce more pressure than you need to elicit the desired response.

DO always start with the least amount of pressure possible (the aid you’d like a finished horse to respond to) and then use progressively stronger applications of pressure if your first attempt fails.

DON’T start with the biggest, hardest, most obvious aid to elicit a response unless that’s how you would like to have to make the request every time.

DO be persistent and DON’T give up until the horse gives you at least a hint of what you were after.

DO be observant enough that you can be sure to reward even a small step in the right direction with a release of pressure.

DO release pressure the instant the horse responds desirably if your wish is to sensitize him.