I have been playing around with the idea of pressure and release lately with some of my clients and students.. and I've stumbled on a technique which I have become very fond of. I should start off by mentioning that the reason I started searching for a new technique was that I had hit a wall with the idea of only ever using negative reinforcement and the idea of offering a "choice" in most NH training models wasn't really offering a true "yes" or "no" choice...
What I mean by that is that the choice is always your wanted answer; and never really answered by the horse. You put pressure on to ask the horse to move over for instance; you are offering the choice to stand in pressure or to move over. That's not really a choice... that's a shaping model to do what you want. This is a very useful technique and I don't mean to say I don't use it at all; but the idea of using it all the time was starting to bother me. The idea of kindness and lightness was missing here; and it was feeling too robotic for me.
A few of my clients are involved in FEEL facilitation; and they often talk about how they "ask" horses to join their work. They have to be prepared to receive a flat out no to their question, and deal with it. They cannot force a horse to work with them if the horse does not want to. That's real choice.
So how do we create a model that offers "choice" but still ends in a result that we want for our working horses? As much as I wish I could say I could take a flat no from my horses; the reality of that with paying for horses can be a bit disheartening. So how do we make training less stressful so that our horses don't need to fight to find a yes?
I believe this new technique (new to me, I'm sure there are many others using it in one form or another) is my answer. Instead of just putting pressure on, and slowly increasing pressure until the horse does what you ask; then removing the pressure when they do. This is classic negative reinforcement. We ask in waves of soft and light pressure. Pressure on, then off to wait for a response. As if to say with pressure "Would you do this for me?" then removing the pressure to say "Here, in this space." If they do not respond accordingly you ask again with a bit more pressure, in a slow wave again. And release to wait for a response. I've found this method to be very useful for horses that tend to push against pressure, or those who get resistant or afraid.
I've found that the horse that used to push against pressure until you had to "force" them away from it; easily sit back and take the gentle cues. They do not hit a point where they get resistant and strong; they relax and settle into the suggestion of the cues. The horse that freezes in pressure follows with the release and relaxes into the pressure waves without needing to stop and think in fear. Horses tend to lick and chew faster after these waves of pressure as it seems they have time to think in between each pressure point, instead of having to think while pressure is in their face.
An example for this would be teaching a horse to give to a halt pressure from body cue to rein aids. It starts fairly "ugly" but think of it as a very simple progression into lightness. As you walk around the arena, think about using your softest cue to ask for a halt. Do not plan to stop at any particular point; just plan to stop eventually. Engage your softest cue (ie. body or reins) for 1 second, then release it. Engage again for a 1 second and release. Think about your cue as being on a bungee cord; it is engaged softly and slowly into pressure, and released in the same manner. There is no jerking or throwing anything away. Continue this process until your horse stops. You will need to increase the amount of pressure you use the more times you have to engage.
Eventually you will only have to ask with one engagement for your horse to respond. Soft and easy. This will take different amounts of sessions and length of sessions depending on the horse and on your timing.
This idea of waves of pressure can be used in everything you ask of your horse. From moving them around on the ground, to turning them around a circle. Instead of grabbing the rein and pulling their head over, milk the pressure on the rein on and off and think to yourself; pressure on "Can you turn your body for me?" then release "In this freedom of space?".
Your mind set will change the way you ride and how softly you engage your aids. This is one of the most important aspects as I've come to witness with my students and their horses. It is often said you need to be "assertive" and "firm" with your horse so they understand your clear cue. But I find in this thinking the idea of softness is lost. I believe being kind and patient is the most important thing to do in all of your work with your horse. Take your mind to a place of constant encouragement, kindness and try to think of everything you do as what you would want done to yourself if you were being taught something new. Think of working with your horse as you working with your best friend. Would you snap at your best friend and poke them and sternly say "over" to them? Or would you ask them to kindly move out of your space? Can you understand why we can't be snappy at our horses? How it forces them to be jumpy, on edge and worried about what we will do to them all of sudden if they are out of place?
But if we instead can be soft, our pressure always slow and understood; we can create a partner who knows who we are. They can be ready for us to ask any question because they know it will be easy to answer. They know we can ask and wait for an answer. Instead of ask and expect it right away. Can you see how we can shape that process for anything we want from our horses and how it would reduce their stress... how it would allow them to become more emotionally fit and mentally stable to work through difficult obstacles. How it would slow their mental processes down to better focus, to calm themselves in high adrenaline situations and to handle anything we throw at them...
Give it a try with your horse and see what happens! I will be putting up some videos in the next few posts to show you my progress with two of my horses. Zeppelin a RBI/RBE and Floyd a LBI; both react to traditional negative reinforcement differently... but react to this technique with licking lips and relaxed heads.