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.
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.