Pressure and Release vs. Fear-Induced Reactions in Horse Training

Pressure and release

In my training, I use pressure and release technique (negative reinforcement) as well as positive reinforcement. In this article, I would like to discuss my own understanding of pressure and release.

I once had a conversation with someone who told me, my horses don’t look as if they were trained with pressure and release, because they don’t have a worried look in their eyes. That’s because there is pressure and release, which is used to communicate my ideas to the horse, and pressure and release that forces the horse to adhere to my wishes. The former creates a soft response, with the horse understanding what, for example, a cue means, the latter induces fear of an aversive stimulant that appears when the horse doesn’t react on the light cue and is accompanied by worry in the horse. For the inexperienced audience, both might seem indistinguishable, because in both cases horses react to a light cue. But for trainers who know their learning theory and are experienced in using it, the difference is very obvious. That’s why my friend was astonished that she couldn’t see the usual signs of pressure and release training.

At this point I should probably explain what pressure means to me. To me, pressure is the difference between my idea and the horse’s behaviour. For example, I would like to teach a horse the quarters-in in groundwork. The picture of the correct quarters-in I’m sending the horse before I even apply a cue, already constitutes a form of pressure, in my opinion. My inner picture shows the horse in quarters-in, while the horse in reality is not yet doing it. This difference is perceived by the horse (you know that if you work with inner pictures yourself) and is often enough to initiate a search for an answer. It creates an expectation from our side, a pressure, a sort of vacuum if you will. This understanding of pressure means, for me, that training without pressure is not really possible, and that pressure doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. It also follows, that we can exert an immense amount of pressure on the horse without even realising it. Our inner picture of a horse might differ so much from reality, that there is a constant pressure on that horse.

Furthermore, I consider pointing my whip at a certain spot of the horse’s body a form of pressure, as well as voice cues and my body language. Treats in your pocket can create a lot of pressure in some horses, even if they have learned feeding manners.

The form of pressure, however, that is often referred to in some training techniques or in scientific studies, I consider nothing short of punishment. A soft cue that is followed by escalating pressure induces a fearful reaction in the horse and it learns to react more quickly and on a lighter cue, because it is afraid of the consequences and tries to avoid them. A typical example is a horse not going forward enough on the lunge and the trainer using a sudden and strong hit with the lunging whip. Next time, the horse will react on a lighter cue because it is afraid of the pain and the sudden reaction of the trainer.

If we want to use light pressure in training, we have to make sure the horse is prepared to understand us. In the case of teaching a horse quarters-in, it needs to know how to follow us when we move away from him, it needs to be familiar with the whip and not be frightened of it, it has to be able to move his shoulders without losing balance, how to the keep bending on a circle, and to search for answers when I ask him a question, just to name a few. Let’s look at two ways of teaching the quarters-in in groundwork:

The first, and quite common, way: The horse is placed on the track next to the wall, with the head looking at the wall and hind quarters on the second track. The trainer is standing in front of the horse, facing it, and has a long whip with a rope attached to it. The trainer swings the whip rope over the horse’s croup to touch the outside of the croup in order to animate the horse to make step to the inside with the hind legs, towards the trainer. The horse doesn’t understand, and the pressure is escalated, so that the horse becomes so afraid that it searches for an answer. If the horse gave the right answer, pressure is released, and the procedure is repeated. After a few times, the horse will probably react on less pressure. Horses that have learned the quarters-in in this way tend to show the stress of learning this exercise later with pushing, nipping, or generally being uncomfortable in this exercise.

Here is one way how I have learned to teach a quarters-in from the ground from my teachers and how I pass it on: In previous lessons, horse and human have learned to walk with balance on the circle (shoulders are well balanced, the inside hind foot is slightly stepping under the center of mass, the inside hip is coming forward, there is an even bend and we have a forward-down relaxation of the neck and head). Furthermore, horse and human have learned to increase and decrease the circle while keeping balance and bending. The horse understands the whip cue for the inside leg (given at the girth area), the cue for moving the shoulder out with bending (whip at the place where the inside rein would touch during riding), and it has understood to follow the human when walking backwards in front of the horse. The horse can already perform an acceptable shoulder-in on a straight line close to the wall, with the inside hind leg stepping under the center of mass, the hip staying forward, the outside shoulder becoming more free, and a good balance on both front legs. Now I use the “banana principle”: From the shoulder-in on the track, I bring the shoulders of the horse closer to the wall with the whip cue for the inside rein and by using my body position (taking my inside shoulder away from the horse). In almost all cases, the horse will then keep its bended shape and while bringing the front end closer to the wall, the hind will come in. Just like moving one end of a banana. Now technically, this is rather a shoulder-out then a quarters-in, but it serves the purpose to explain the idea that the hind should come in and the outside hind leg should step under the center of mass while keeping the bending. Later the exercise is refined to be a quarters-in. This way of teaching not only avoids tension and worry in the horse, it also prevents other problems with the other approach mentioned above, such as loss of bending and falling on the inside shoulder.

When it comes to using pressure and release in training, I find it highly recommendable to think about your own, personal pressure scale. My pressure scale has 10 levels of pressure, with 10 the most pressure I would be willing to use in front of an audience, and 0 no pressure. My goal is to get a response from the horse with a 0.5 or a 1. When teaching a cue, for example, I would go up to a 3 or 4, which should still be an amount of pressure long before the horse gets afraid. If that doesn’t work, I have to find another way of explaining. If I can explain a cue with a 1 or 2, I will prefer that. For example, if I would like to teach the response to the inside leg cue in groundwork, the whip pointing to the girth area and the response being an equal bending in the horse’s body, with the inside hip coming forward, the chest rotating a bit down on the inside, and the outside shoulder also slight forward. Then I could, in my pressure system, show the whip and use the cavesson at the same time to bend the horse. Over time, the horse learns to associate the whip cue and the bending. I would operate at a pressure of maybe a 2, with an inner picture, showing the whip, and a physical aid on the cavesson. I could also use an exercise: I place four cones in the arena to mark a square. I walk backwards in front of the horse around these cones. On the sides of the square, I go straight, no bending, no cue from my side, then at each corner, I walk a sort of 90 degree turn myself and show the whip in this moment to the girth area, just for the moment of the turn. Then I go straight again, no whip cue. There I would operate at a pressure 1 level with an inner picture and showing the whip.

When I release pressure, I always offer a reward to the horse, which can be a treat, a scratch, praising with my voice, being proud of the horse, making a party, just relaxing together, or whatever this horse perceives as a reward. I find that just releasing pressure is not enough motivation to think about a task that I set for the horse, if I want to use pressure in a non-threatening way.

Another important part of pressure and release technique is to find out, how much pressure a particular horse finds acceptable without getting stressed or tense, and how much pressure is acceptable for you as a person. In terms of the comfort zone, where does the horse go from green to orange, and where does it become red? Some horses have a large stretch zone, some have a very tiny, almost non-existent one. Some horses have a large comfort zone and a small stress zone, while others have a narrow comfort zone and a huge stress zone. The amount pressure we are applying should be determined by these zones of the horse, not by a rigid system. What constitutes a step 1 pressure for one horse, can already be a 3 or 4 for another. By the same token, some people feel very uncomfortable with using more than a certain amount of pressure in their training. And that’s also part of finding your own, personal pressure scale. In training, we always aim for authenticity, and using more pressure than you feel good with, or less, makes you less convincing as a trainer. Personally, I can use quite high amounts of pressure without getting emotional and I don’t have any sense for retribution or showing the horse who’s boss. I can use a pressure spike for a very short moment and then immediately become soft again. It doesn’t mean I use it (in fact it happens very rarely), but a trainer should be able to separate physical cues from emotion, even if higher pressure is used. You might find yourself in a situation in which you have to communicate strongly and clearly, for example, that you are not to be run over. But these are extreme cases, or at least they should be.

I once attended a clinic, in which pressure and release was used. It was a widely spread training method and a well known clinician. To be honest, I was totally shocked by the amount of pressure applied! The pressure scale went from 1 to 4, which, in my view, was not enough pressure steps to begin with, because the increase from the 1 to the 2 already induced a fear response in all horses present. I was astonished that nobody seemed to mind! There was a lot of tail swishing, pinned ears, tight mouths, worried looks, hectic reactions. I don’t want to say that these things never occur in training, it should just make us think about our training method if our horses show so many signs of discomfort at once. Moreover, pressure step 4 was way more than I would ever used in training – it was the kind of pressure I would use in order to defend myself if I had to fear for my safety.

In my opinion, applying so much pressure that we get a fear induced reaction is not pressure and release, it is a declaration of the inability to communicate with the horse. I see pressure as a sophisticated means of communication which requires skill and a lot of thinking on my side. I work on refining these skills every day, so that my application of pressure is non-violent and non-threatening. It should rather be thought of as asking a kind question or making a suggestion.

I’m sure there are many more points to a discussion about pressure and release, these being my thoughts on this topic at the moment. One last important idea, at least for me, is that my horses are my friends. And just like with my human friends, I don’t want to hit them or make them feel afraid of me. Because friends don’t do that.

What are your thoughts on pressure and release?

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