Horses are prey animals. To survive as a prey animal, the ability to feel, sense and understand intention, energy and pressure is hard wired into his system (e.g., flight or fight). Naturally, horses move into steady pressure (fight) and run from driving pressure (flight). In order for horses to survive in the human world learning to give to pressure is a must.
There are five keys to teaching horses to give to pressure:
- Release – horses actually learn from the release of pressure.
- Timing – the sooner you release when your horse gives, the more quickly your horse understands what you want.
- Clarity – if you release at the wrong time, then you taught your horse the wrong thing and created confusion.
- Consistency – the more consistent you are in your release, timing and clarity, the better your horse understands and learns.
- Building blocks/baby steps – in teaching a horse a new thing or cleaning up cues, always break down the exercise into small steps. Never expect your horse to complete an entire maneuver perfectly the first time. Break it down and build up to the final maneuver.
Example: Asking your horse’s hindquarters to move away from your leg pressure
You apply steady pressure with your calf behind the girth line asking your horse to move his hindquarters away from your leg pressure. The instant you feel your horse shift his weight away from your leg, you release your leg pressure. This tells your horse very clearly what you were asking for. Now ask your horse again, release the instant you feel him shift his weight away from your leg pressure. Repeat again; horses typically learn in threes, but always customize to the individual horse’s needs and learning style. Now that your horse understands your request, it’s time to progress the lesson (this could be the same day or a new day). Apply steady leg pressure and hold the leg pressure until your horse picks up the hind leg you are applying pressure to. Your horse may become confused because you previously released when he shifted his weight, continue to hold the pressure until he picks up the hind leg and release the instant he raises the hind leg. Repeat this until your horse understands. Once your horse understands this new step you can ask more from him. Apply steady pressure until your horse picks up his hind leg and moves it away from your leg pressure. Repeat until your horse understands. The final session will be your horse picking up the hind leg and crossing it over in front of the other hind leg to move away from your steady leg pressure.
This sounds pretty easy, but your horse will try many options to get the pressure to go away. He might walk forward, or step sideways, or back up. Your job is to continue to hold the pressure while saying no to his other efforts in trying to figure out what you want. Remember clarity and consistency are important keys in helping you teach your horse to give to pressure. Always reward (release of pressure) your horse’s slightest correct try.