Humans, Horses and Pressure
Horses, Humans and Pressure
When we work with a horse we primarily use two forms of pressure to communicate, physical pressure (the lead rope attached to the halter, the rein, the leg, the seat, etc.) or spatial pressure (not touching the horse but able to influence his brain and movement.) Vocal commands are the third, less common form of pressure.
A horse’s natural response to pressure is to flee from it, become defensive towards it, or to physically “challenge” it, which causes him to be unable to “hear” the person. The horse needs to learn that pressure offered by a person can be a positive way to communicate.
It should be thought of as a tool that affects the clarity of communication between a person and their horse. It can be used to teach the horse to be respectful towards personal space, defining literal and imaginary boundaries. Whether from the ground or in the saddle, teaching the horse to follow, soften and yield to the pressure of a lead rope, rein, leg or your seat are quality and necessary aids. It should and can be used to teach the horse to become mentally available before offering physical movement.
The term “pressure” often has a negative association due to the misuse of it through a person’s attempts of controlling and micromanaging the horse. Pressure forcing a horse into submission whether through physical dominance, using gadgets and devices or physically wearing down the horse tends to evolve into a battle of the wills. Pressure by forcing something upon the horse until he has to choose between the “lessors of two evils” has no quality outcome. Physically aggressive pressure or “driving” the horse as a tactic basically scares a horse into doing something (crossing water, trailer loading, passing the scary spot on the trail) and contributes to distrust between horse and person.
Due to a misunderstanding, inattentiveness, distraction, and lack of awareness, many people unintentionally communicate a constant barrage of chaos through both spatial and physical pressure. A “busy-ness” from a person in their activity with the lead rope/rein/leg dulls the horse and teaches the horse to ignore the person and become defensive towards pressure. Having slow, after-the-fact critical responses towards their horse, inconsistently allowing behaviors, and not establishing clear boundaries are common contributors leading to a horse’s resistance towards any form of pressure.
People tend to hurry in life and often the same applies to their horsemanship. Accomplishing the “task” often becomes the focal point, rather than addressing the quality of communication they have with their horse. As long as the horse mostly “goes along” with what is asked, people tend to accept the horse’s behavior. But without effective “tools” (I don’t mean gadgets, rather how a person uses pressure to communicate) they often wind up at the “mercy” of the horse or “surviving” the ride. This then creates a cycle of worry, fear and insecurity in both human and horse.
Take a few minutes to evaluate your relationship with your horse, considering the following questions:
If you walk into the pasture/stall does your horse automatically move away from you (fleeing from your spatial pressure)? Does he approach nicely but “hover” in your personal space (delegating the pecking order of where you’re at in his herd)? If you raise your hands to halter him does he move his head up, away, or “dive” into the halter (defensive, anticipative, disrespectful)? When leading him is he lethargic and slow in response, does he try to “hide” behind you as you walk, does it feel like he is “leading” you and rushing, or does he constantly walk with his head cranked over his shoulder with his body bumping into you?
If you walk past grass or a buddy horse does he try to drag you over to where he wants to go? If you ask him to stop moving using the lead rope lightly does he respond slowly, is over-reactive, or completely ignores you? If you walk faster or slower does he mimic your energy with his, or does he only offer one speed irrelevant of what you’re asking?
If he is tied does he paw, wiggle, chew on the lead rope, pull back against the rope, or move away from you as you groom/tack him? When you mount, does he stand still, walk off before you’re ready, or fidget if asked him to stand longer than he wanted?
If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, there probably needs to be a re-defining (even in “accomplished” or “broke” horses) as to their interpretation of pressure and the quality of your communication. A person can be actively supportive of the horse through the use of respectful pressure. But if the horse feels defensive towards pressure, you are limiting your tools and options when communicating, helping and supporting your horse.
The mental availability and physical behavior your horse offers while working with him from the ground typically decreases in quality when you ride. If you dislike what your horse is offering now, don’t wait until later to address it. The horse feels a fly land on him, he can feel you. If he disregards you when you ask something minor, what will happen when you ask more of him? Any initial display of resistance will only increase as you put him in situations that are stressful or not his idea.
Taking the time to refine the quality of the basic use of pressure while on the ground will set the standard for the upcoming ride. Remember, the conversation starts with your horse the moment you halter him and does not end until you turn him loose again. At times it may feel like you are going “slow” but in the long run you will accomplish more with a quality physical outcome and at the same time achieve a rewarding partnership between you and your horse.