How a horse learns (and the real use of pressure)
We are, as humans, inherently creatures of comfort. We actively seek the easiest and the most comfortable route, particularly during a learning process. Horses are no different to us in their learning process.
A common problem heard from my students is "my horse wont (stop/go/canter/back up). This could be a result of many reasons with the same underlying cause - the horse either has not learnt how to do the task properly or has learnt how to evade the task without being corrected.
So how can we rectify this?
Horses learn from the release of pressure not the application of pressure. Why? Because pressure is uncomfortable and they are seeking relief from this discomfort.
The horse doesn't learn to go because you kick; it learns to go because you stop kicking when it goes.
The horse doesn't learn to stop because you pull the reins; it learns to stop because you stop pulling when it stops.
This principle, applied consistently, not only teaches effective communication in a way that a horse understands what you are expecting of them when you use an aid but also helps them to process the stimulus that is your aid or cue. In this way you can work with your horse to help it understand what you want.
What is you horses motivation for its behaviour? In most instances the main thing that motivates a horse is to be hanging out with its mates eating grass in the paddock. So use that. If your horse is evading an aid because it finds it uncomfortable use that to encourage the horse to do what you are asking to find the comfort. This is how you teach a horse to process a stimulus and work with you instead of against you.
In understanding this vital aspect of training we can understand what is required by us to develop communication.
1. Know what you are trying to get the horse to do. So many times I have students that haven't made a conscious decision on what they are trying to achieve. They are just riding or working with the horse and they work instinctively and off reflex. This is not necessarily a bad thing but this lack of self awareness means they are not always describing what they want properly and so they don't get the results from the horse. Each time you are asking something of your horse make sure you have made a conscious decision on what the end result of the cue should be.
2. Break the big goal down into mini achievable goals. There are a lot of little things that go into the end result. For example you may think that mounting is just jumping on the horse but there is a lot that can go wrong between you getting ready to mount and you actually being in the saddle. You first want your horse to stand still, you then want your horse to stand still while you put your foot in the stirrup, you then want the horse to stand still while you stand in the stirrup and lastly you want the horse to stand still while you sit in the saddle. So there is actually 4 steps here and to figure that out you had to know what you are trying to get the horse to do. You wanted it to stand still while you mount. By just working on one step at a time, you can safely train your horse to stand up to be mounted, or safely mount an unknown horse. If there is going to be a problem you can be confident it will happen before you are in a vulnerable position, half in and half out of the saddle.
3. Decide what pressure or discomfort you are going to apply to communicate what you are trying to achieve. Once you have decided what you want and how to get there you need to decide what is the discomfort that you are creating that the horse is going to try and evade. So in the above example the discomfort is the standing still and the mounting. The pressure is the pressure applied to the bit to ask the horse to stand still and the pressure of you mounting.
4. Know what you will release the pressure for. Now you know what you want to achieve, the steps that will get you there and what your horse will be trying to evade. This will help you decide what you will release pressure for. So as in the above example the quality is to stand still, the pressure is the rein aid as a cue but also you mounting. So with each progression you want to release the pressure for the horse standing still. You want to take away the pressure of you trying to mount and the pressure to ask them to stand still with each step that they stand still for. This also gives them a bit of say in what is going on and you can read that, rather than them bottling it up and just coping until the reach the point of no longer coping and they explode. Each step along the way you are showing the what to expect and you are showing them what they can expect from you without feeling fearful and threatened.
5. Apply the pressure, follow through with consistency on the aid until you get your quality and then release. Your horse isn't always going to react the way that you want it to. The first few times of asking it to do something it doesn't necessarily want to do, it will react instinctively, this is where you may need experienced help because if you release the pressure for the incorrect behaviour you are teaching them do to that. For example, if I wanted to teach a horse to mount and when I stood in the stirrup the horse started bucking and I got a fright and jumped off, I would be teaching it to buck when I stood in the stirrup. I am releasing the pressure for a behaviour I really don't want and in doing so encouraging the behaviour. The horse has learnt that I stop trying to mount it when it starts bucking and I have created a whole lot bigger of an issue to deal with. This is where the groundwork leading up to this point needs to be solid so that the horse processes stimulus not reacts to it.
6. Timing is key. As we were saying above timing is crucial. You need to release the pressure for the correct behaviour as soon as the horse considers it to encourage them to seek that release of pressure. You have to maintain pressure through all the responses you didn't want so that you are not teaching them how to get out of it. If there is no release of pressure there is no reason for the horse to do what you are asking of it.
Are you using pressure and release correctly? Or are you struggling with a particular area? Comment below - we'd love to hear from you!