You are warmly invited to follow my journey in the Academic Art of Riding!. When I started this blog, I was just a regular, first-time horse owner. My horse, Nazir, however, made sure that my childhood passion developed into something much more.
In my training, I use pressure and release technique (negative reinforcement) as well as positive reinforcement. In this article, I would like to discuss my own understanding of pressure and release.
I once had a conversation with someone who told me, my horses don’t look as if they were trained with pressure and release, because they don’t have a worried look in their eyes. That’s because there is pressure and release, which is used to communicate my ideas to the horse, and pressure and release that forces the horse to adhere to my wishes. The former creates a soft response, with the horse understanding what, for example, a cue means, the latter induces fear of an aversive stimulant that appears when the horse doesn’t react on the light cue and is accompanied by worry in the horse. For the inexperienced audience, both might seem indistinguishable, because in both cases horses react to a light cue. But for trainers who know their learning theory and are experienced in using it, the difference is very obvious. That’s why my friend was astonished that she couldn’t see the usual signs of pressure and release training.
At this point I should probably explain what pressure means to me. To me, pressure is the difference between my idea and the horse’s behaviour. For example, I would like to teach a horse the quarters-in in groundwork. The picture of the correct quarters-in I’m sending the horse before I even apply a cue, already constitutes a form of pressure, in my opinion. My inner picture shows the horse in quarters-in, while the horse in reality is not yet doing it. This difference is perceived by the horse (you know that if you work with inner pictures yourself) and is often enough to initiate a search for an answer. It creates an expectation from our side, a pressure, a sort of vacuum if you will. This understanding of pressure means, for me, that training without pressure is not really possible, and that pressure doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. It also follows, that we can exert an immense amount of pressure on the horse without even realising it. Our inner picture of a horse might differ so much from reality, that there is a constant pressure on that horse.
Furthermore, I consider pointing my whip at a certain spot of the horse’s body a form of pressure, as well as voice cues and my body language. Treats in your pocket can create a lot of pressure in some horses, even if they have learned feeding manners.
The form of pressure, however, that is often referred to in some training techniques or in scientific studies, I consider nothing short of punishment. A soft cue that is followed by escalating pressure induces a fearful reaction in the horse and it learns to react more quickly and on a lighter cue, because it is afraid of the consequences and tries to avoid them. A typical example is a horse not going forward enough on the lunge and the trainer using a sudden and strong hit with the lunging whip. Next time, the horse will react on a lighter cue because it is afraid of the pain and the sudden reaction of the trainer.
If we want to use light pressure in training, we have to make sure the horse is prepared to understand us. In the case of teaching a horse quarters-in, it needs to know how to follow us when we move away from him, it needs to be familiar with the whip and not be frightened of it, it has to be able to move his shoulders without losing balance, how to the keep bending on a circle, and to search for answers when I ask him a question, just to name a few. Let’s look at two ways of teaching the quarters-in in groundwork:
The first, and quite common, way: The horse is placed on the track next to the wall, with the head looking at the wall and hind quarters on the second track. The trainer is standing in front of the horse, facing it, and has a long whip with a rope attached to it. The trainer swings the whip rope over the horse’s croup to touch the outside of the croup in order to animate the horse to make step to the inside with the hind legs, towards the trainer. The horse doesn’t understand, and the pressure is escalated, so that the horse becomes so afraid that it searches for an answer. If the horse gave the right answer, pressure is released, and the procedure is repeated. After a few times, the horse will probably react on less pressure. Horses that have learned the quarters-in in this way tend to show the stress of learning this exercise later with pushing, nipping, or generally being uncomfortable in this exercise.
Here is one way how I have learned to teach a quarters-in from the ground from my teachers and how I pass it on: In previous lessons, horse and human have learned to walk with balance on the circle (shoulders are well balanced, the inside hind foot is slightly stepping under the center of mass, the inside hip is coming forward, there is an even bend and we have a forward-down relaxation of the neck and head). Furthermore, horse and human have learned to increase and decrease the circle while keeping balance and bending. The horse understands the whip cue for the inside leg (given at the girth area), the cue for moving the shoulder out with bending (whip at the place where the inside rein would touch during riding), and it has understood to follow the human when walking backwards in front of the horse. The horse can already perform an acceptable shoulder-in on a straight line close to the wall, with the inside hind leg stepping under the center of mass, the hip staying forward, the outside shoulder becoming more free, and a good balance on both front legs. Now I use the “banana principle”: From the shoulder-in on the track, I bring the shoulders of the horse closer to the wall with the whip cue for the inside rein and by using my body position (taking my inside shoulder away from the horse). In almost all cases, the horse will then keep its bended shape and while bringing the front end closer to the wall, the hind will come in. Just like moving one end of a banana. Now technically, this is rather a shoulder-out then a quarters-in, but it serves the purpose to explain the idea that the hind should come in and the outside hind leg should step under the center of mass while keeping the bending. Later the exercise is refined to be a quarters-in. This way of teaching not only avoids tension and worry in the horse, it also prevents other problems with the other approach mentioned above, such as loss of bending and falling on the inside shoulder.
When it comes to using pressure and release in training, I find it highly recommendable to think about your own, personal pressure scale. My pressure scale has 10 levels of pressure, with 10 the most pressure I would be willing to use in front of an audience, and 0 no pressure. My goal is to get a response from the horse with a 0.5 or a 1. When teaching a cue, for example, I would go up to a 3 or 4, which should still be an amount of pressure long before the horse gets afraid. If that doesn’t work, I have to find another way of explaining. If I can explain a cue with a 1 or 2, I will prefer that. For example, if I would like to teach the response to the inside leg cue in groundwork, the whip pointing to the girth area and the response being an equal bending in the horse’s body, with the inside hip coming forward, the chest rotating a bit down on the inside, and the outside shoulder also slight forward. Then I could, in my pressure system, show the whip and use the cavesson at the same time to bend the horse. Over time, the horse learns to associate the whip cue and the bending. I would operate at a pressure of maybe a 2, with an inner picture, showing the whip, and a physical aid on the cavesson. I could also use an exercise: I place four cones in the arena to mark a square. I walk backwards in front of the horse around these cones. On the sides of the square, I go straight, no bending, no cue from my side, then at each corner, I walk a sort of 90 degree turn myself and show the whip in this moment to the girth area, just for the moment of the turn. Then I go straight again, no whip cue. There I would operate at a pressure 1 level with an inner picture and showing the whip.
When I release pressure, I always offer a reward to the horse, which can be a treat, a scratch, praising with my voice, being proud of the horse, making a party, just relaxing together, or whatever this horse perceives as a reward. I find that just releasing pressure is not enough motivation to think about a task that I set for the horse, if I want to use pressure in a non-threatening way.
Another important part of pressure and release technique is to find out, how much pressure a particular horse finds acceptable without getting stressed or tense, and how much pressure is acceptable for you as a person. In terms of the comfort zone, where does the horse go from green to orange, and where does it become red? Some horses have a large stretch zone, some have a very tiny, almost non-existent one. Some horses have a large comfort zone and a small stress zone, while others have a narrow comfort zone and a huge stress zone. The amount pressure we are applying should be determined by these zones of the horse, not by a rigid system. What constitutes a step 1 pressure for one horse, can already be a 3 or 4 for another. By the same token, some people feel very uncomfortable with using more than a certain amount of pressure in their training. And that’s also part of finding your own, personal pressure scale. In training, we always aim for authenticity, and using more pressure than you feel good with, or less, makes you less convincing as a trainer. Personally, I can use quite high amounts of pressure without getting emotional and I don’t have any sense for retribution or showing the horse who’s boss. I can use a pressure spike for a very short moment and then immediately become soft again. It doesn’t mean I use it (in fact it happens very rarely), but a trainer should be able to separate physical cues from emotion, even if higher pressure is used. You might find yourself in a situation in which you have to communicate strongly and clearly, for example, that you are not to be run over. But these are extreme cases, or at least they should be.
I once attended a clinic, in which pressure and release was used. It was a widely spread training method and a well known clinician. To be honest, I was totally shocked by the amount of pressure applied! The pressure scale went from 1 to 4, which, in my view, was not enough pressure steps to begin with, because the increase from the 1 to the 2 already induced a fear response in all horses present. I was astonished that nobody seemed to mind! There was a lot of tail swishing, pinned ears, tight mouths, worried looks, hectic reactions. I don’t want to say that these things never occur in training, it should just make us think about our training method if our horses show so many signs of discomfort at once. Moreover, pressure step 4 was way more than I would ever used in training – it was the kind of pressure I would use in order to defend myself if I had to fear for my safety.
In my opinion, applying so much pressure that we get a fear induced reaction is not pressure and release, it is a declaration of the inability to communicate with the horse. I see pressure as a sophisticated means of communication which requires skill and a lot of thinking on my side. I work on refining these skills every day, so that my application of pressure is non-violent and non-threatening. It should rather be thought of as asking a kind question or making a suggestion.
I’m sure there are many more points to a discussion about pressure and release, these being my thoughts on this topic at the moment. One last important idea, at least for me, is that my horses are my friends. And just like with my human friends, I don’t want to hit them or make them feel afraid of me. Because friends don’t do that.
Whether a horse is reacting or responding to an aid actually makes a big difference in our training.
During my first internship at Bent Branderup’s, Christofer Dahlgren spoke to us one evening about the difference between reaction and response, an idea which changed my training fundamentally and which I have thought about a lot ever since.
Here are my findings on this topic so far.
Signs that the horse REACTS:
Reaction is delayed
Aid has to be repeated
Reaction only comes when pressure steps are added
Every once and so often, pressure has to be escalated in order to get a reaction at all
Horse reacts with physical tension (stiffness) or mental tension (shows discomfort or stress)
Horse doesn’t react in the same way each time, sometimes very little, sometimes not al all, sometimes too much
If the circumstances change (doing the exercise in a different place, for example away from the wall), the horse doesn’t react anymore.
Signs that the horse RESPONDS:
Response is immediate
The aid does not have to be repeated
The aid works every time (given the horse pays attention)
No pressure steps have to be added
Pressure does not have to be escalated every once and so often
Response is soft, physically and mentally
Horse responds the same way each time
The aid can be used in different contexts and the horse still understands
So what it boils down to is – does the horse really understand the aid? If yes, he will give you a response, if not, he will react.
I found that reactions can mostly be found with horses that have been trained with escalating pressure systems, while responses are achieved when taking the time (and sometimes becoming creative…) to explain to the horse what we mean.
The inside leg aid in walk, in groundwork. Ideally, you point the tip of your whip towards the girth area and the horse should make itself hollow on the inside and stretch the outside. There are more points to consider, but let’s just assume this is what we are looking for. With a horse that didn’t fully understand the aid, the aid has to be repeated often and pressure steps have to be added (tapping with whip, making large movements with the whip, using more pressure with whip). With a horse that understood the aid, the horse will stay bended and will be soft in the bending.
Escalating pressure will not really help the horse to understand, because there will be emotions and tension involved on his side and the result is not permanent. So what could be a solution?
In this case, it helps to stop and explain to the horse in standing what we mean when we point the whip to this place. We can help wit our hand on with the cavesson and ask for bending while pointing the whip to the girth area. We can also let the horse make one step away from the whip with the inside hind leg. This will not be the end result and is just a step on the way, but can help. We could also make exercises such as the square, and in each corner we point the whip to the girth area and make the turn. This way of teaching it has the advantage, that the outside shoulder also comes forward, whereas when we ask a step away from the whip, we don’t consider all the points that should happen during bending in the horse’s body. The square also has the advantage, that no pressure has to be added, the horse simply learns via association.
So if we have to
repeat aids all the time
use pressure scales or escalate pressure
get stiffness or tension
or the aid doesn’t work under certain circumstances
then our horse didn’t fully understand the aid. It is up to us then to find a better explanation for the horse.
In the academic art of riding, we distinguish between the physical seat and the statical seat.
The physical seat is the area in which the rider and horse connect, where you touch the horse with your thighs, upper legs, bottom. The physical seat moves with the horse. When the horse makes a step with the inside hind leg, the hip on that side moves forward and down. And so should our own hip. When the horse puts weight on that foot and pushes itself forward, the hip moves backwards and up. And of course, our hip should follow this movement, too. It is an eliptic movement that can be best explained with driving bicycle backwards. The more relaxed we are and the less tension in our body, the better we can follow the horse’s movement. Then the horse’s spine and rib cage can swing unhindered and the movements can go through the shoulders, front legs, neck and head. Our goal is that the horse can move just as easily and beautifully with us on its back than when running free on the field. And for that we train our physical seat.
The statical seat has to do with the fact that we are vertical and have an angle over the horse, which means that when we lean slightly to the front, to one side, or back, then leverage forces come into play. You can try it out: Sit on your hands and move your upper body to the front and back, and feel the impact on your hands. Also try how little you have to move and still feel something! It’s rather surprising. Even a slight nod of the head can be felt this way, and that’s also the softest aid with our physical seat. With our physical seat, we influence the common point of weight of horse and rider and in the academic art of riding, we teach the horse to always step in under our common point of weight.
We start using our statical seat more once we work more with half-halts. When we lean a little forward (Bent always says “stomach forward – hands forward”), then we want the horse to stretch the upper line, search towards the hand and bring the hind legs more forward, under the point of weight that we now shifted a bit forward. This is the half-halt according to Steinbrecht and we use it when the hind leg starts stepping a bit short. Bent also calls it the first decente.
When the horse’s hind feet stay forward, we can keep our point of balance in the saddle and just give a bit with our hand. The horse will then search a tiny bit forward-down, enough to take out any tension or compression that might be in the spine. If you can give without ruining the forward step of the hind leg, then we talk about “hand without leg”, meaning we don’t need our leg aid to correct the forward step of the hind leg. This is the giving according to Baucher or second descente.
Then we start giving half-halts with our hand and the statical seat on the horse’s inside or outside hind leg. By taking back our point of weight a little with our statical seat, we bring slightly more weight onto the hind legs and we ask the hind legs to bend more in the haunches in order to carry this weight. Our hand does not pull actively backwards, it just follows the slight backwards leaning with our upper body. If we feel resistance in our hand, that means that the joints of the hind legs are not giving and are pushing against our hand. The hind leg will start to step shorter in that case and push more backwards-out. Because our horse has already learned to bring the hind leg forward again when we lean a little forward and give with the hand, that’s what we do in that case. In this phase we practice to shift the horse’s weight horizontally and to bend the joints of the hind legs more.
When we can give a half-halt on either the inside or the outside hind leg, then we give it in the rhythm of both hind legs. If the horse stays back and doesn’t go against the hand, we give the half-halt only with our stomach and stay back with our upper body. Do we loose one hind leg we start giving the half-halts again on one hind leg. Can we stay back, give with our hand and the horse stays back, under our point of weight, we call this the third decente (or half-halt according to Guérinière). The third descente has both the first and the second one in them. Sometimes we will have to go a little forward with our point of weight to animate a hind leg to step forward again. Sometimes we will give the half-halt more on one hind leg, then on the other, giving with our hand sometimes to let the horse stretch the nose a tiny idea forward. And then we stay back and only use our stomach for the half halts, the horse bringing more weight on his hind legs and bending the haunches.
Eventually, our point of balance and the place where the horse’s hind legs go into the ground should be the same. We lean a little forward – the horse brings the hind feet more forward, we lean a little back – the horse brings more weight on the hind legs and bends the haunches. At the same time, we cannot get stiff in our physical seat and block the swinging of the spine.
So that was a bit about the physical seat, the statical seat and half-halts.
In my next post I will write about the seat in the half-pass.
You might have noticed that it was a bit quiet around Nazir and I lately. That’s because I had almost given up. If you have followed my journey, you know that looking for a way how to work with Nazir, and him being totally ok with it, is one of my main motivations. However, more and more I had the feeling that he just didn’t like doing anything. Hanging out yes, but not even going for a walk. All he seemed to want was staying with his herd and eating hay.
I was already looking for a new home for him, a place where I could retire him, where he could be in a herd and outside 24 hours a day. It just seemed like the reasonable thing to do, especially because Nazir really doesn’t like living in a box, and I don’t have an open stable close to my home that also has good training facilities.
But then, when I had found the right place and it was about making the last decision, the thought of loading him to the trailer and driving off with him almost broke my heart. My plan was to visit him every week. Still I was not able to do it.
When I bought Nazir he was worn out from the life in the riding school, at just 6 years of age. He “functioned” ok and everyone said he was a well-behaving horse. He was my first own horse and I began to read every equestrian book I could lay my hands on. I got interested in training methods, horses’ body language, and learning theory. And with my increasing knowledge I began to see that Nazir functioned on the outside but he was quite troubled on the inside.
They were subtle signs at first: tension around the eyes, didn’t want to come out of his box, stopped on the way to the arena and planted his feet, swishing his tail a lot. It was a bit inconvenient, but nothing I gave much thought to. Then Nazir started to be tense during riding. The solution of the riding teacher was firm rein contact and more driving with the legs. A few months later, Nazir started spooking a lot, and when that didn’t make me listen he also bucked. By then I realised that he was trying to tell me something and that I wasn’t on the right path.
Now I know that horses can escalate their behavior if we don’t listen. And that’s what Nazir did, to the point that I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
A health issue forced us to take a break. Nazir had two operations on his right knee and was on box rest for 4 months. As difficult as this time was, it signified a new beginning for us, too. I got to know him better than ever before. All the time we spent together, just hanging out. Me reading a book, sitting in his box. As one employee at the horse clinic said to me, “Boy, you must love this horse”. “Yes I do,” I said.
Then in the process of rehab, I read Bent Branderup’s book about the Academic Art of Riding and immediately knew that I had found what I had been looking for. I started groundwork with Nazir and he recovered very well. Physically, he looked better than ever. But mentally, we were not there yet.
By now, Nazir was fully himself. Not tired anymore, not intimidated, not “functioning”. He was strong, extremely curious, very extroverted, with clear opinions what he liked and didn’t like, very sensitive, and also with a very bad balance. This last point revealed itself once all the extreme stiffnesses that he previously had were gone.
During our trainings, he taught me about body language, energy and mental images. He moulded me into the trainer that I am now. He taught me the importance of a light, giving hand, of breathing, and of relaxation.
But he also showed me that he didn’t fully trust me with his body. I didn’t know enough yet. Slightly frustrated, I focused on working with Weto and later also on teaching. Sometimes I did something with Nazir, but I could see that he wasn’t really open to me, and so I just let him be for a bit.
However, I always feel incomplete without Nazir. He is “my” horse, it’s hard to explain. Deep down, I know he is there for a reason. He already taught me so much and it looks like there is still a lot more he has to say.
Nazir’s extreme reactions had gotten to a point where I had no more fun being with him. Whatever I tried, he seemed to say “no”. I also had a feeling that he didn’t notice how much I had changed, that he was still stuck in his old patterns. I know it sounds strange, but that was the impression I got.
In the Academic Art of Riding, our motto is “Two spririts want to do what two bodies can.”. And I was further away from having Nazir’s spirit than ever before.
When, after a lot of thinking and talking to my closest friends and my husband, I finally took the step of looking for a new home for Nazir, away from Weto and his friends at Olender, Nazir suddenly changed. I had already agreed with the owner of the place I wanted to bring him to and told her “I will just ask Nazir what he thinks”. In my mind, he would probably be happy about it: hay as much as he can eat, a small herd, freedom, no work.
I visited Nazir on his paddock and told him about the place. I sent him images, thought of the place as I had just seen it, and asked him whether he would like to live there. His answer could not have been clearer. He had wide open eyes and looked at me as if I were an alien. I wanted to bring him to the stable to brush him a bit, but he planted his feet and all the time looked back to the herd. I even took a video of that and sent it to this stable owner saying that I’m sorry, but it looks like my horse is not ready to leave. Seriously, he couldn’t have been more obvious. I actually couldn’t make him leave the paddock that day!
Next day, Nazir was different. He looked at me as if he understood that he had exaggerated it. He came to me on the paddock now, where before he was only interested in eating. He stood quietly next to me. He followed me when I left. I think he had felt that I was ready to sever the bond, because I didn’t know what else to do anymore. And not being able to reach him was too painful.
We are spending more time together again. When I feel him in the groundwork now, I can see how fragile he is. How easily out of balance. How easily excitable. How his emotions can boil up because of a tiny unfairness or unclearness from me. Nazir is extreme, but when he puts his heart into something, he is brilliant and so beautiful.
No wonder I couldn’t work with him before. I thought I had bought a bullet proof horse, a beginner horse, when in fact I had one of the most sensitive horses I have met so far. And I lacked all that knowledge about biomechanics and balance.
I am also different now. I am ready to take the next step, to learn from him again. Because I see him now, and I am open for his amazing being.
I made him a promise: No more “horsemanship”. What I mean by that is not more “ready solutions”. We have to find our own way of being together, a way which comes only from deep within ourselves.
As a horse trainer, it is not easy to share these thoughts. Many people have recommended that I buy myself an easier horse. And I will definitively buy one, hopefully soon. Not because I want to replace Nazir, but because I want to work with a young horse. But Nazir will stay. I need him to show me the next step of my horse journey. I am ready.
On the way to collection there is horizontal balance. The horse goes from it’s natural balance to shifting more weight to the hind legs and becoming more free in the shoulders.
If you imagine an old fashioned scale, then the scale is about equal. The rider sits in a horizontal balance, too – not in a forward seat and not in a collected seat – somewhere in the middle.
The forward-down tendency of the neck and back should still be there, however – the horse should stretch the nose forward and out. A horse behind the vertical is not in horizontal balance.
How do we get there?
The first step is a relaxed forward-down with a forward hind foot and equal bending to both sides. Here we work on shoulder balance: The horse learns to carry equal weight with both front legs in both directions. Without correct shoulder balance, your half-halts will not go through and will get stuck in the shoulders. At the same time, we work the hind legs more forward and, through exercises such as shoulder-in, prepare them for taking more weight.
When the horse has a good shoulder balance and the hind legs are well prepared for taking more weight, our half-halts can go through and shift weight from front to back. It is like sitting in the middle of a teeter-totter (in German “Wippe”) and bringing it more down behind you.
From the horizontal balance, we continue our work towards collection.
A horse in horizontal balance is easy to turn and has fluid gaits. Even if you don’t want to become a dressage freak, a horizontal balance is important for the well-being of every horse as it allows for carrying itself and you in a healthy way.