Horses and pressure – how about making it parley?

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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?

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