One could argue that every interaction that takes place in life is an exchange of pressures – giving pressure, giving into pressure, avoiding pressure, and pushing against pressure. Horses respond to pressure in those same ways, depending on what they know, what they’ve lived and the nature of who they are as an individual.
The general rule of thumb is that applying too much pressure to a horse will lead them either to habitually avoid pressure or push against it. A horse that avoids pressure will manifest this behaviour in various ways: avoiding contact, shying away from you or your equipment (ever meet a horse that was terrified of sticks/whips?), and even have a tendency to rush or bolt (trying to escape the pressure by outdistancing itself from it). On the other hand, when a horse learns to push against pressure, you’ll most likely start calling them “stubborn” or “grumpy” – they’re heavy off the leg, lean on the bit, don’t have brakes, and so on.
Obviously no one wants a horse that either avoids pressure or pushes against it – so how do you find the middle ground to help the horse become soft, light and responsive to your aides?
Some horses may be more difficult than others, some may have been taught by people, either deliberately or inadvertently, to push against or avoid pressure, but the essence of helping a horse to develop lightness, responsiveness and softness is the same. There are many different tools or methods that can be applied, which I shall not go into, for now I’ll focus simply on the principles behind developing a healthy relationship with pressure in your horse (and, more importantly, in yourself).
Most of us humans lack a certain level of physical awareness – awareness of our surroundings, our body language, posture, and even touch. Horses, on the other hand, could arguably be labelled as hyper-aware. They use body language as a primary point of communication amongst not only themselves, but with every living thing (yes, that includes us). They can feel a fly landing on them, and are always keeping alert of happenings in their environment (they are, after all, prey animals). The combination of the comparatively insensitive human and the hyper-sensitive horse often leads to some undesirable behaviour in the horse – but to be fair, it’s almost always our fault.
As I mentioned above, there are many different tools and methods available in horsemanship. I am of the opinion that there is no one tool, method or trick that will work the same for any and all horses. I feel that the more tools, knowledge and diversity you have in your “toolbox”, the more horses you will be able to help. Different horses need different approaches, so keep an open mind – and if things are not going well, DON’T BLAME THE HORSE! It’s probably your fault. Yes, I said it and I meant it.
OK let’s get down to business. Often, we try to push and bully a horse into submission. We try to implement the shortest route that we can see from point A to point B – but that seldom works out to be in the best interest of the horse. We must be humble and recognise that the horse is showing us the truth of what we are actually saying (through what we are doing – ie posture, body language, touch, etc). If we do not practice awareness of our physical presence and body language, we will most likely find that our horse continues to do things that we are not asking (or they overcompensate or are “stubborn”). We are, in other words, always exerting some form of pressure, either through body language or touch – this is what the horse will respond to. It follows naturally that if we are not aware of what our body is saying, we will not be able to follow the same conversation that our horse is following.
That, I would say, describes my first and most important principle: the horse is always honest and showing us who WE are. The second principle has to do more with lightness. Lightness is the goal – and to get there we must start there. I start all of my work with any horse at the lightest possible “ask” – meaning I see how softly I can execute an aide before the horse responds. Within this I am giving the horse the opportunity to be equally light. Often with a new horse one may start with lightness, yet may have to progressively increase the intensity of the ask until the horse responds. Within this, releasing pressure is the most important part – as soon as the horse responds (and in the beginning, I will reward the tiniest effort on the part of the horse!). This means that we must practice releasing the tension in our bodies faster and faster. If you are applying pressure with a hand, that hand must be lightning quick to release the pressure once the horse responds. The combination of starting your asks lightly and releasing the pressure immediately will gradually develop a greater level of softness, lightness and responsiveness in your horse.
I’ll go up to here. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or blog requests. Enjoy!