Horses are animals. As animals, they understand training with a simple code. This code, this method, works on “pressure and release”.
It MUST be simple. Clear. Easy. For riders and horses.
I will never stop stressing the importance of not over complicating a sport that is already very difficult, with many variables.
Let me explain to you how the pressure-release method works.
Let’s imagine a horse that has not been trained yet, a very young horse that has never had a rider on them. We will call this horse Billy.
This example will allow you to understand better what I’m trying to explain to you.
If you have an older horse, please don’t worry, the great thing about this system is that it is universal, it will work on the old horse as it will on the young horse, the big and the small, the cheap and the expensive, the competition horse and the pleasure Sunday hack horse. It could work an a donkey or a cow. Because it works on the brain, not the body.
So, let's go back to our friend Billy.
We need a rider for Billy now, let's call our rider Mario.
Of course, this is a only an example, as in real life no one would just get on a horse that hasn’t had some preparation from the ground. It would be extremely dangerous (don’t do this at home!). But let's just imagine that Mario sits on Billy. Billy doesn’t know anything.
When Mario sits on Billy, the first thing that he wants him to do, his first goal, is to walk forward. The signal that we use to ask them to walk forward, is a light pressure with our legs on the sides of the horse.
So Mario applies a light leg's pressure (focus on light - that is the key).
Billy feels the pressure - every horse will.
It is in the nature of the horse to want to get rid of any kind of pressure, but Billy doesn’t know how yet.
The horse has many choices in front of him, the process in his brain will probably sound something like this: “i feel this pressure, i want to get rid of it, what can i do to get rid of it?”
Billy may try many different ways to “make you stop” applying the leg pressure. This is why backing horses should never be done by people that are not extremely experienced and prepared.
He may try to turn and look at Mario’s leg and smell it for example, he may try to move sideways or backwards, he may try to kick the leg as he would if there was a fly, he may try to walk forward..
Mario needs to wait for the very moment in which Billy’s reaction coincides with his goal, which is walking forward. He will keep the pressure for every “wrong” answer that the horse is trying; sometimes he will need to increase the pressure (we will see this later); but AS SOON AS (timing is key) we have the right response from the horse, so as soon as Billy decides to walk forward, Mario MUST release the leg pressure.
Releasing the pressure is our way of telling the horses “yes, that is what i asked you, so now i stop asking it”.
Now imagine what happens in Billy’s brain: “Wow! That worked! That is my way of getting rid of that pressure. Easy!”
What just happened? Mario and Billy are speaking the same language. Simple.
Now, it will be enough to make some repetitions of this same request, following the same pattern, and what results is that we have induced an automatic reaction in the horse. It will become a habit for Billy, because it is a pattern that he understands clearly. He is happy with this. Now every time that he will feel leg pressure, his automatic reaction will be to walk forward.
It is, and it must be, as simple as that.
So this is the game of consequences that we are talking about.
Pressure-right response- release.
This also means that it doesn’t really matter too much how we ask things to our horses, what matters more is that we always ask it in the same way. Following the same system.
How does this translate to a more experienced horse?
Exactly the same, with one more factor to put into consideration. Older horses, for various reasons, might know what a certain pressure means, but they might choose to ignore you.
This is a very common problem that many riders will have experienced at some point in their careers.
“My horse is lazy to the legs, he is not sensitive!” Someone might say.
Absolutely not true. They are all sensitive, they just choose to ignore you. They choose to ignore you, very probably, because you haven’t been quick enough to release the pressure whenever there was the right response from the horse.
Let me explain.
Imagine that Mario is not quick enough to stop the leg pressure when Billy walks forward. What will Billy think? “I felt legs pressure, i wanted to get rid of it, so i walked forward, but the pressure didn’t stop. Maybe I am not supposed to walk forward when I feel legs pressure? What am I meant to do? I don’t understand. Next time that I feel leg pressure I will not walk forward, because even if I do, Mario doesn’t release the pressure”
Billy is not the only horse who would think like this, they would all think like this, it would become their instinct to ignore you. Because you are not clear. Because you never stop the pressure, no matter what the horse does.
Now, here’s the good news: every horse can become “sensitive” and respectful of the aids again. It’s a matter of method and resilience.
Let’s imagine that they bring me a horse in training, that has learnt to ignore the legs pressure. The first time that i ask to walk forward, i will do it in the exact same way, with a light pressure. Then I need to wait for the next 2 seconds to see what the horse decides to do. If he is still after 2 seconds and so he has decided to ignore me, I will apply the same kind of pressure again, only slightly stronger, to see if it will induce the right reaction in the horse. Then wait a couple of seconds agin. If he ignores me again (it may happen) i will need to do the same again. Just a little bit harder. The secret is increase the pressure, to provoke the horse to respond. As soon as the horse gives the right answer, it is imperative that i release the pressure.
Then again. And again. Repetition is key. Soon the horse will understand that he needs to respond to the light aid, so the pressure will stop. If he doesn’t respond to it, the pressure will increase.
Sound simple right? It has to be simple. This way they understand. This way we create a partnership with the horse. This way we can work towards light riding. Our goal has to be to do the smallest action possible, not the strongest.
Method. Consistency. Timing. This all sounds obvious and simple, but it works. It’s just not easy to do. But the first step is to understand it. Understand why. Understand how.
This is the most ethical way of training a horse, therefore is the way that we should aim towards. Decreasing the pressures, not increasing. Do less on the horse, not more. Do lighter, not harder. Don’t concentrate only on the pressure. Concentrate on the release. Listen to your horse. Every horse can improve their aid response, all of them. Never too late.
This is the method of training that I normally use with all my horses and for showjumping, dressage and eventing as well as for the school horses of our Riding holiday centre in Tuscany : Il Paretaio. If you wish to contact me for any further explanation or clearement fell free to send me an e mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can easily contact me on FB or IG.