Training Theory: Pressure

There are two types of Pressure: Physical pressure and Intention pressure (threat).

Physical pressure: that is the tactile feelings such as the bit against the bars in his mouth or the rope halter bearing down on the poll at his head. It can be as uncomfortable as necessary to move him, or as subtle as an air-light resting of your hand on his joint or muscle line (as in some equine message techniques that produce relaxation).

Horse’s are large animals, but not necessarily agile or inventive. They can bully their environment, pushing through brush, bumping each other: In essence, using their size to move things out of their way.

A horse’s natural reaction to physical pressure is to resist it by moving into it. ie: When you lean into a horse’s shoulder in an effort to get his weight off of your foot, he leans right back into you, forcing his full weight onto the hoof that is crushing your toe. Just one instance where it would be nice if you were dealing with a horse who had been taught to yield to pressure. Such a horse would have moved off of your foot the moment you put the slightest pressure on his shoulder.

They have a built-in survival response, which is a “bracing” response. Teaching a horse to yield or relax (not brace) involves time spent on the ground, motivating him to move away and then reinforcing his retreat. (see Release Training)(see Reinforcement Theory ) (see Yielding)

Intention (psychological) pressure: Because horses are prey animals and not predators (that is: hunted instead of hunters), they must always be aware of a carnivore eyeing their body and sizing them up for dinner. If a horse feels threatened by another’s intentions (intention pressure) he will move away from the “pressure“. See Fight or Flight. Intention pressure is usually communicated through body language (your position, your gaze, your energy) but not touching.

Your Power Bubble: Intention Pressure Personified


Horses instinctively watch your body for signs of your intentions. If you have authority, there is a kind of force-field around your body (an invisible bubble) that they dare not trespass without invitation. Whenever there is energy in your stance or movement, the bubble grows in size, shrinking back smaller as you relax and look away.

Very sensitive horses watch this bubble closely and react quickly to stay out of its field. Disrespectful horses trespass into that space, eventually popping the bubble altogether and leaving you vulnerable to their shear size and weight. The colt in this video was born and raised on the ranch, spoiled by all who passed by. He is not dominant or aggressive, he is just disrespectful of my personal space in his eagerness to get to the “resting area” and get his reward. It is a clear example of a horse who has not learned to be aware of my power bubble. He will have to learn that lesson soon.

Teaching a horse to yield to physical pressure or intention pressure requires exact timing.

Proper Release is critical. Release is the reward that the rider or trainer gives the horse for executing the proper maneuver. ie: If he backs up one steps when asked to do so, the pressure is immediately released and he finds that a one-step back always brings relief from the pressure of the bit and the rider’s legs. Soon, he heads for that sweet pressure-free spot. (see Release Training)

Shaping is the term used for GRADUALLY lengthening or fine-tuning a response. ie: After your horse reliably backs up one step, start asking for two. When that is an easy task, ask for three etc. etc. Soon he will back clear across an arena with only the lightest cue. (see Shaping)

Pressure should not be PAIN.

There is a difference between pushing and driving. Both are pressure. However, pushing is a steady pressure that a horse can push back against. It remains on the horse’s body, escalating in intensity until the horse yields to it: Low press, medium press, deep press that is very uncomfortable.

Driving is a rhythmic pressure that demands movement away from the driver. It is harder to resist because it pulsates. There is nothing to lean back against. Driving pressure escalates from body-bubble “air-tapping” to actual pulsating physical contact: TAP! TAP! TAP!

During the introduction of most training exercises in this manual we use escalating driving pressure to induce a horse to move in a certain direction:
First the air-tap, air-tap, air-tap (no physical touch) asking him to move away from the intention pressure of the rhythmic movement toward his body
Escalated to a physical but light tap, tap, tap. Actual physical contact is made but it is not too firm,
Escalated up to Tap, Tap, Tap, which is getting firmer
and then escalated to TAP!, TAP!, TAP!. This may turn into a physical whack with a very dominant, pushy, or aggressive horse.

After a horse shows you that he understands the request but is just too lazy to do it in a manner with any energy in it, we jump through the driving pressure escalation more quickly:
Request with body language or light hand or leg pressure
Jump to TAP if not performed with energy.

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