Basics of Pressure

Learn the different types of pressure in order to better communicate with your horse.

From AQHA’s “Fundamentals of Horsemanship”

There are many different types of pressure. Physical pressure is tactile; other types of pressure are not. We can “drive” the horse without making physical contact, or the horse can make another move by using body language. For example, the dominant horse will put his ears back, telling the other to move back before he is bitten or kicked.

The other horse understands the message and responds accordingly. A positive response to this pressure would be to move, while a negative one would be to ignore or challenge it.

In teaching the horse, we use both:
•    Physical or tactile pressure, which we call “following a feel”
•    Pressure without physical contact, where the horse reacts to body language, which we call “following a suggestion”

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There is also mental pressure. When a horse finds himself in an uncomfortable situation, this mental pressure encourages the horse to look for his two main incentives: comfort and security. We must make the things we do not want less comfortable for him, and those we do want, easier.

It is extremely important to understand that discomfort is not synonymous with pain or violence; a fly can be uncomfortable to a horse.

There are two ways to reinforce teaching:
•    Negative reinforcement: giving the horse comfort by stopping the stimulus when he responds correctly
•    Positive reinforcement: giving the horse an immediate reward when a desired response is obtained

Neither one is right or wrong. The important thing is to know how and when to use both. There are two possible explanations as to why a horse does not do what we ask:
•    It is not comfortable enough for him to do it
•    It is not uncomfortable enough to do otherwise

The true horseman will spend his life looking for the perfect balance.

If you put too much pressure on your horse, he will become stressed; it will be more difficult for him to learn. However, if there is permanent overuse of bribes, such as carrots or handfulls of sweet feed, you will lose his respect; and he will not be motivated to search for the answer. Treats are not wrong, but you must know how and when to use them.

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By causing a horse to be uncomfortable when he does the “wrong” thing and comfortable when “right,” he will quite naturally try to find a way to feel comfortable, and by doing so, will produce the response the rider desires. This is the ideal situation: a rider and horse share the same idea. The horse solves his puzzles without the rider resorting to physical force. A trailer, for example, at first sight can make a horse extremely claustrophobic and panicky. By being given confidence and security in a trailer stall, he will start to think of it as a safe and comfortable refuge. It is just as important to know when to release the pressure as when to apply it. The pressure you apply is not as important to the horse as the moment when you stop applying it.

When a horse responds positively to a stimulus, that stimulus must stop. The horse then feels safe and comfortable. Offer the horse puzzles that he can realistically be expected to solve. They can gradually become more challenging, but never impossible. Encourage the horse to believe he can always find a solution if he tries hard enough, that the impossible does not exist.