Horses are instinctively into-pressure animals. Sometimes, though, you encounter one where this behavior goes to the extreme. You know the type – as you push them to move they sandwich you against the stall wall; when trying to avoid an obstacle under saddle they move toward your leg cue and wind up in it; leading’s best done with hard boots and curled toes as they seem to want to use your feet as a cushion – if you’ve had one, you know it.

Moving into pressure is rarely rude

There’s a big difference between a horse that doesn’t have a proper foundation and one that automatically comes toward you with pressure because it’s so deeply ingrained in their psyche. Rude behavior needs to be addressed very differently, but in these cases where the horse is responding honestly, you won’t get far if your tact is to ‘teach him respect.’ In fact, that term always puzzles me when it comes to horses – doesn’t seem that’s something you can teach if it doesn’t go both ways. I digress.

Traditional approaches are very counterproductive with these types. The more you ratchet up the pressure, the more they’re going to lean into you. That is, until you find a way to communicate that they can understand.

Working in the stall

Probably one of the most dangerous behaviors of these types occurs when you’re in close quarters. If you manage to get yourself between the horse and a wall and try to push them away, invariably you’ll find yourself immobilized between 1000 pounds of flesh and a solid structure designed to withstand flying hooves. It’s a scary place to be.

Interestingly, many of these horses also tend to be kickers, so the easier solution of moving the hindquarters first can put you in a precarious place. Lots of people will advocate using tools such as ropes, whips or other extensions of your hands, but since my goal is to build a relationship and rapport with the horse, I try to rely on communications tools that can be implemented without them.

The first thing to remember is the harder you push, the harder they will. Hitting doesn’t work either. Using hand signals, the voice, creative touch and other tools your body provides are good ways to help reinforce what you’re asking.

I’ve found the safest place to be is at the shoulder slightly in front of the horse (don’t do this with a striker). Use any term you like, but I choose ‘off’ or ‘over’ because these are terms not easily confused with any other word that may be part of training and it makes sense to me. Then, I’ll place my hand between the horse and the wall with my body out of pinning range. With a forefinger, I’ll poke the shoulder on the side I want them to move away from just above and in front of the point of the elbow. At first they’ll move toward your cue. Keep doing it, a little harder as they lean into you, until they stop or make the slightest move away from you. Make sure it’s pulsating and not constant pressure. Praise them lavishly when they stop leaning or move a little. Try again. You’ll find in a matter of minutes the horse will begin to understand what you want. Remember, though, these horses will instinctively move toward you if you push them away so be careful about where you put yourself until you have weeks or months of careful and cautious handling. It’s also a good idea to have someone else at their head.

Under saddle challenges

Even with horses that have a good dressage foundation, I’ve found extreme into pressure horses revert to old habits when faced with a scary or new situation. This is particularly apparent on the trials. Sometimes it’s critical to have a horse move off your leg when holes, vines or old fencing comes into play – for their safety and yours. Just because they yield artfully in the arena doesn’t mean they’ll remember when fright kicks in.

If you know you’re dealing with a horse with this issue, slow it down. Give him time to inspect something of concern before you try to pass it. Oddly, these equines also seem to move toward what they fear as they try to scoot by it, so the more you can assuage their concern, the more likely they’ll hold a straight line.

As you’re passing it, look ahead, stay straight in the saddle, use your hands to control the front end and your seat to encourage a forward path. Don’t get twisting yourself around to look at the object because that will only increase the likelihood you’ll be in it.

While I rarely seek out equipment for behavioral solutions, I did find an interesting product this year that has proven to be extremely effective with into pressure horses.

Interesting tool to help with into-pressure horses

Spursauders were designed by Linda Hauch ( Linda@Spursuader.com ) who was challenged with OTTBs overreacting to typical spurs. The unusual design increases the area of pressure on the horse, presumably decreasing the severity in the process. You need to use them a little differently than you would ordinarily to get a desired reaction from an extreme into pressure horse, but they work. Instead of placing it on the horse until they move off, if you rhythmically apply and remove the spur from their side it seems to send the message to get off your leg. They’re good to have in an emergency as it’s the only product I’ve found that can get your horse’s attention in a hurry when he’s hardwired to jump into pressure – and trouble – on the trails.

Leading your horse

With some horses, no matter how thorough and correct the foundation, when they’re anxious their instinct is to walk on top of you. The more you push them away, the more inclined they are to move toward you. Working to incorporate multiple signals (voice, hand cues, touch) during groundwork sessions designed to encourage the horse to move away from you helps. It’s important to establish these cues before you try to lead the horse (not always possible, I know).

In cases where you find yourself leading and in trouble, there are a few things you can do to try to regain control and safety. Stop the horse. If you have to get in front of him and face him to do it, so be it (but stay safe). Try backing him several steps until you have his attention. If he tries walking on top of your feet again, repeat. Once he stays where you want him (even for a moment), praise him and let him know this is what you want. It might take ½ hour to lead the horse 20 yards, but at least it will be a lesson that serves you both.

If they’re leaping and landing on top of you, curl their head in front of your body. That will push their shoulder and hindquarters out and even if you get your feet under their front hooves, it’s safer than having your head there. Work on establishing better control in an enclosed area (such as a roundpen) before you try to lead them again. Going back to the voice, hand signals, body language and touch can help here as well.

Horse sense to consider

Extreme into pressure horses revert back to this behavior when concerned, no matter how well schooled they are. Remember, pushing is likely to get them to push back. Instead of reacting in fear, stop, think and avoid steady pressure for preferred pulsating cues to try to get them off of you. Establish a voice cue they can recognize and respond to. Stay out of potentially dangerous positions. Go back to groundwork to try to reestablish understanding. You just need to be aware that what you do to get a normal horse to respond in a pinch isn’t likely to work with these sorts. So, pause before you act to think through what their reaction will be and get out of the way.

Have you found effective approaches to discouraging horses from moving toward you when you’re trying to push them away Please share your ideas – or challenges – in the comments below.

15 Responses

  1. Hi Nanette,

    I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea of “into pressure” as difficult horse behavior to deal with. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating this use of verbiage. I think my issue with it may be due to having always instinctively using pulsating lighter pressure rather than solid heavy pressure to cue. My personality is naturally stubborn and that may be part of it. Having an aptitude for stubborn-ness and knowing how to deal with it in myself I’ve just always seen this into-pressure as a non-issue. (I thrive on the idea of stubborn and think of it as an asset in myself and in horses so for me it is a positive word.)

    Could those things be what is confusing me with the into-pressure idea? I’m not disagreeing with the idea, I’m just trying to clear it up in my head and am interested in your thoughts. I’m glad you brought it up because it has been a conundrum for years with me.

  2. Hi Stacey,

    Thanks for your comment and question. I’m open to ideas for a better term.

    Every so often (I don’t find this to be a particularly common occurrence), I encounter a horse that instinctively puts all his weight against you no matter how lightly or intermittently you touch him. This kind of reaction to touch is well beyond the norm. This type of horse can be very dangerous with a novice (or even more experienced horseman not accustomed to this reaction)who tend to want to ‘push them away.’ It’s not stubbornness – it’s a gut response that can get you pinned, crushed, stepped on or in a hole if you don’t understand how to reach them with a better approach.

    So many of the formula training approaches talk about applying pressure to make the horse do what you want to do – and keep increasing it until they comply. Yes, I get this isn’t exactly what they are talking about (although still find the philosophy a bit off), but it can be easily misinterpreted. Try that with one of these characters and you’ll be frustrated at best – keep it up and your reaction may turn to terror.

  3. Hi Nanette–I’ve been working with a mare for quite a while now whose favorite tactic is to cut in front of me while leading her, literally cutting off my path and sometimes even ending up facing me. She only does this when she’s nervous about something. The rest of the time she responds to “walk” and “whoa” verbal cues quite well and keeps her place with her shoulder next to my shoulder. Recently I started leading her with my right hand under her neck, grasping the right rein. When she starts to turn in on me (a left turn for her), I open that right rein and start her off in a brisk walk to the right. I’m not sure this will work because I haven’t done it enough times to tell if it’s effective. I also use the verbal “move o-o-o-v-ver” cue too. Any thoughts?

  4. Alli – thanks for checking in. I could see this working if you have a bit in the horse’s mouth. That’s not always the case. You might consider putting her behind you (not directly, of course, but keeping her off your track to the right). If you put an open flat hand, palm toward her, in front of her face when you suspect she might surge forward, this will stop most horses, or at least cause them to swerve further away from you. Of course, I wouldn’t take my eyes off her until you are confident she’ll give you this response. It’s understandable why she might be turning in front of you – or even facing you – if you’re holding on tight to the left rein – she has no where else to go. Another tactic that does tend to work with horses that get ahead of you or crowd your space is backing them up. Might want to try this each time she surges forward without your blessing. Face her as you do it and continue until she’s focused on you. Repeat as necessary :-).

  5. Hi, I have a horse (Kalina) who is very dominant on the ground. In the process of lunging she turns in and runs over the top of you with ears back. If you try to back be up she just walks into you and won’t stop pushing around the paddock. She is also a kicker. I find it hard to lead her all the time because she either walks past me or goes over top of me.

    1. Hi Isabella,

      It sounds like your issues are bigger than dealing with an into pressure horse. You might want to do a search (this feature is pretty robust on this website) for alpha blog posts (there are a good number of them that might help you with your challenge). Clearly, she’s not happy. Whether this is due to prior mistreatment or a failure by the humans she’s encountered to build a rapport, I don’t know. This might be a case where it makes sense to bring someone in to help you. Her dangerous behavior could hurt both of you.

  6. Hi,

    I have a young mare that i have always struggled with when using any type of typical pressure release techniques.

    My most recent struggle is having her move from leg pressure when under saddle , the more pressure you apply or even keeping and even pressure causes her to act out. When i lightly close my leg to ask her forward she will first stop, then if the pressure doesnt go away she will turn and bit at my legs and if that doesnt work she will rear.

    This mare was professionally started and then spelled, all regular checks for pain have been conducted. Do you think is an into pressure reaction?

    Thanks Leigh

    1. Hi Leigh,

      I had a filly like that (she wasn’t an into-pressure horse – just couldn’t stand any leg pressure at her girth). With her, what I found most effective was switching to a different aid – in this case, a dressage whip. Tickling her flank a foot or two behind my leg was acceptable to her (she was a strong alpha). She knew what I wanted, but was more focused on telling me she didn’t like the way I asked (in dramatic fashion – much like you describe your young mare response). Over time, I incorporated this cue with the slightest bit of leg pressure simultaneously, releasing immediately for the tiniest try.

      In my experience (I had a lot of these come through my farm), professionally started doesn’t mean the person who worked with the horse initially understood how to reach them effectively. Many trainers have a pat system for starting babies under saddle. With mares, particularly strong ones, that creates a foundation of resistance. Mares respond better to customized training that keeps them in the conversation.

      For what it’s worth, the toughest mares, reached in a way that suits them, will give you more than you ever imagined in return. Keep your chin up – if you can figure out a way to build a rapport with this challenge you’ll discover she’ll give you effort, loyalty and protection beyond your dreams. The early stuff takes more time but once you build that bond, everything else comes easy.

  7. Thank you for this post. I have a mare that fits your description perfectly. I e had her with a pressure and release trainer who assures me the mare just needs more and up the prompting and push her harder. My mare, like you suggested, continues to move towards the pressure – regardless! I’ve also noticed that positive reinforcement and allowing her time to adjust to scary things works every time. Thank you for verifying what I already knew – she’s not the problem (I mean, she has some issues 😊) but the training isn’t recognizing the function of her behavior and thus the behavior does not change.

  8. Hi Nanette,

    I have formed a bond with a new rescue hinny named (aptly) Buck. Buck is 6 yrs old and has never been handled, he came to the rescue with very little background info as well, so no clue what trauma if any, he may have. I am trying to teach him to lead and have also been using friendly game and porcupine game.I am very green my self when it comes to working with equines. He has been responding pretty well to friendly game and the use of the stick, BUT we have started working on his into pressure thing and the more the pressure increases, the more he moves into it and starts getting to be what I call a “space invader” sometimes he is crowding me so much I leave his stall and let him calm down before going back in and trying again. He will also bite (little pinchy bites, not full on, thank goodness!) and when agitated he kicks with both front and back feet and rears. I like your idea of pulsating pressure for him and will try it tonight. I am trying to come up with ways to back him off when he starts getting pushy, but everything I have tried seems to encourage him to push harder. I leave his stall and go away for few minutes when he gets worked up, and when I come back, he does better, but it never lasts. Do you have any suggestions that may help with any of this? I love your article and will definitely try the things you are suggesting. I just want to help this little (adorable) guy prepare for adoption, which he already has lined up! Thank you ahead of time for any guidance you can offer.

  9. Hi Stephanie,

    Congratulations on your bond with Buck. Do let me know how pulsating pressure works with him. I’ve also found less is more with just about any horse, but particularly these serious into pressure horses. See if lightening your touch (tickling vs. pushing) works. You’re smart to walk away when he gets pushy and I’m glad to hear that’s been somewhat effective for you. That’s telling and indicates your tactic is working on some level, even if it’s not sticking. I’d continue this since he seems to be responding – give it some time and you might see more lasting results.

    On the biting and kicking with front and back feet, I would not tolerate this at all. This is a behavior where it’s appropriate for you to get stern. There’s been a lot published lately on the behavior of wild herds, but even my first-hand knowledge from watching domesticated herds shows lead mares won’t put up with bullies. I don’t agree with the “teach them respect” mantra (that’s something that has to be earned), but this horse (even if it’s a little one) probably has at least a few hundred pounds on you and a whole lot more strength. I think it’s fair for you to do what’s necessary to communicate to him these actions are unacceptable.

    Please do come back and report on your progress. I give you a lot of credit for your wisdom in trying creative approaches, noticing what’s working and starting to reach this horse. This horse is lucky to have you working to reach him.

    1. Thank you , Nanette. I appreciate you taking the time to respond. We tried pulsating pressure last night, while he did not move away from it, he also did not lean into it so….we will keep trying that way.
      Last night’s session did not go well outside of the first 10-15 minutes or so. I spent the majority of the time after that trying to get him to give me space and stop biting me. He got frustrated with me several times, including rearing up at me twice, resulting in me leaving his stall on both occasions, to which he threw a tantrum both times complete with running back and forth in his stall and braying once or twice. When I re-approached the stall he immediately came to the wall and gave me the side of his body to pet prior to me re-entering. I’m unsure what to make of that!
      You stated to get stern and not tolerate the biting and kicking out (or the rearing which just happened) so what do you suggest? I have been tapping him lightly on his nose when he tries to bites (he hates that) but how stern are we talking? what does that look like? Like I said, I am very green myself and take direction very well 😉 Thank you so much for all of your help!

      1. Hi Stephanie, Buck is still young. If you had good results for 10-15 minutes (or even two – it’s always best to quit on a good note), that’s a huge win. Actually, with any horse you’re having challenges with (young or not), shorter sessions are best. You’re better off asking for a small try and rewarding that profusely then quitting than pushing too hard in a way that leads to frustration for both of you.

        Relative to stern, that depends on the horse. Given what you’ve shared above, I wouldn’t go that route in the extreme unless it’s a reaction to a perilous situation he’s put you in that you need to get out of immediately. Please try picking a small, easy win for both of you that you can both finish with a happy understanding. It’s OK if that’s only a minute – or less. I strive to make it ten minutes or less. If he does what you ask, reward and quit. You’ll get a lot further with short, successful lessons that he understands and can be praised for than you will with protracted ones that end with you both frustrated and annoyed. Hope that helps.

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