It seems you can’t follow an online group thread pertaining to horses, read an equine blog or talk to a horse trainer these days without a comment that references pressure. Those who use the term seem so clear in the meaning (most don’t really get it – but have adopted the buzz word others have coined or watched a DVD to make them experts). The idiom is used so freely these days, it’s become the catch-all to most horse problems (simply apply or release). I don’t like the term pressure because it implies force and is too nebulous in its overuse. A better concept to grasp (and it accomplishes a better end) is listening.

When trainers or product pushers use the word pressure with horses, they’re usually referring to space or contact issues. The problem is, solutions tend to be given as pat answers for every horse, and that just doesn’t work. The only way pressure is effective with horses is when it’s coupled with quick responses that consider your horse’s reactions and needs. Pressure is such a dictatorial term and seems strange in a horseman’s vocabulary.  So, if you don’t like listening, how about parlay?

When most use the term pressure, it involves negative reinforcement that causes the horse to seek to avoid the experience. Whether it’s getting in their space in an uncomfortable way, applying leg, seat or hand to encourage the horse to do what you want so the annoyance stops or sending him away, it’s a process that relies on avoidance for results. That’s fine when the end goal is positive reinforcement, or the release. Unfortunately, few seem to recognize that you get the response from eliminating the pressure as the reward and incentive.

Thinking horses shine with approaches that make training a game you and the horse play together. To do this effectively, you need to hear the horse in ways that show him you recognize and consider his input. Wouldn’t you rather have a horse that can jump in to contribute to solutions when you screw up (it happens to all of us) than one who has been conditioned to shut down and wait for your instructions on all decisions? This doesn’t happen when pressure is applied as a means to teach a horse to conform to your will.

If you look up pressure, synonyms include force, anxiety, demands, burden, coerce and bully. Ironically, while this term is thrown out there as a kind training tool, these words accurately describe what you do to a horse when applying formula training techniques offered as pat answers to all problems. This doesn’t usually make for happy horses or humans. It’s a bad term for what is used by most horsemen to describe body language, but is understandably misunderstood by the novice masses. Let’s say we start a movement to replace the term pressure with a better word more easily interpreted by the uninitiated? I’ve thrown out listen and parley as possible alternatives, but imagine there are better alternatives. What ideas do you have for a clearer way to describe guiding a horse in training?

8 Responses

  1. The saying “It’s the release that teaches” comes closest to the actual concept, I think, with horses. But for teaching it to a novice human, hmmm. Probably the concept of “give-and-take” might be better. Even a small child understands that there should be a two-way exchange of information going on between two individuals if a conversation of any kind is to take place. When the individuals are of totally different species, the give-and-take of the exchange becomes even more critical–did you say what I thought you said or did you mean…..? And the quandry goes in both directions for all novices-both equine and human. Just what DID that other being just try to tell me? Or was it not listening at all?

    1. Thanks for commenting, Ellen. I see your point with give and take. Frankly, it saddens me that green horse and novice rider combinations seem to more the norm than not these days. So many seem to be putting out a message to encourage such arrangements, though, it’s not a big surprise many are getting in over their heads as problems arise.

      What really bothers me in these situations is the answer given that blames the novice – insinuating failures only occur when the program isn’t followed properly. In my experience, each horse is different so pat systems for all horses don’t work. When working with young horses in particular, you need to craft a customized program that responds to the horse’s issues if you want them to shine (and relish training). Novices rarely have the mileage to be able to do this effectively. Yet, they’re being told they can do it with a DVD and then languish as their horse gets confused, frustrated, belligerent, frightened or dangerous. I really feel for them. So, I’m on a bit of a mission to try to find ways to help them out of the quagmire. Ideas?

  2. I like “invite”. As in, invite the horse to do (insert response of choice). Inviting requires communicating what you want, but more than that it requires that you make that response appealing to the horse.

    What makes teaching successful interaction with horses (or any other animal) difficult is that so much of the process depends on being attuned to the responses the animal gives. Those who do it instinctively are labeled ‘talented’, leaving the rest to struggle on wondering why their own results are not similar.

    1. I like invite too! Thanks so much for such a great suggestion, Helen.

      On the successful interaction comment, I absolutely agree you need to be attuned to responses, but I’m not so sure this is as illusive as most seem to believe. Maybe it’s more a matter of being relaxed and unincumbered by “the right way” to do things? When we were kids we could get our ponies to do just about anything (and I’m sure our parents would have had a stroke if they saw half of what we were up to). While some of us could have been labeled talented, we were mostly just fearless and too dumb to think through how unreasonable and dangerous our requests were. Of course, our horses were our world, we viewed them as peers & our best friends, and loved them to death so probably were intuative about horse responses, but certainly not consciously. It’s a puzzle, isn’t it?

  3. Kids, left to their own devices, are naturally intuitive. Chances are as a kid you knew as soon as you saw him how your pony was feeling–the result of reading his body language, no conscious thought required.

    I agree that being preoccupied with doing things “right” is the biggest killer of intuition. Corollary to that is the worry that doing it wrong is going to cause irreparable damage, which creates hesitancy to act. That hesitancy leaves the horse unable to trust the human as leader, and it’s all downhill from there.

  4. Good points, Helen. And you’re so right – a tenative nature with a horse doesn’t work very well. Kind confidence is so important as you work with alphas and timid equines alike. Now, how do we get adults to let out the kid inside them when dealing with horses?

  5. Adults have fears and concerns, children, for the most part, are fearless. To answer your question, with my theory, would be hypnosis. To give to pressure is loosely used and misunderstood. I like to stick with cue rather than pressure, this helps keep my mind in the right direction. A cue is simply communicating with the horse for a give and get relationship, therefor the horse and rider/trainer stays objective.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Mark. Cue’s a good alternative too. I do like this much better.

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