The key components to good training are pressure, release, timing and consistency,
writes Patrick Hopgood.
In order for you to improve your horse you must have a full understanding of pressure, release, timing and consistency. Each of these four components carries equal importance. If your understanding or use of any of the four components is lacking you will not be able to effectively ride or train your horse.
This applied to all your handling and riding of horses be it working with a young horse, fixing a problem with an older horse or improving a show horse. The same goes for whether you are a novice rider or very accomplished, focusing on these four components will drastically improve the way you use your aids. If you correctly use pressure, release, timing and consistency, your horse will learn the lesson you are trying to teach much more quickly and successfully.
Pressure The term pressure is something that a lot of people will have heard of in the horse world but may not fully grasp. In riding we use the word pressure to refer to literal pressure placed on the horse’s body by the aids, implied pressure from energy directed at the horse from things like a lunge whip or rope, and pre pressure cues such as voice commands, clicks etc.
Applying pressure is a way of communicating and giving instruction to a horse but also implies a degree of negative consequence if the horse does not respond. For example, the horse would prefer not to have your leg squeezing or bumping on their side. They would rather have that pressure removed (the release), which is positive.
All pressure needs a consequence, should the horse not respond, otherwise they may learn to ignore it. Usually the consequence is an increase in the pressure (whatever it may be), although the rider needs to know when to increase it (timing) and when to cease the pressure (release) to give the horse the motivation to respond correctly.
Release Release refers to the cessation of the pressure that the rider is applying, be it from the leg, bit or raised lunge whip. Why do we use release of pressure as a reward rather than say food? The answer to this goes right back to the horse’s natural instincts. Horses are prey animals and differ to predators (such as humans, dogs and cats) in the way they think and operate. A prey animal doesn’t see food as a reward in the same way a predator does as they don’t need to put in lots of energy and effort to stalk, chase and catch a blade of grass. On the other hand, stalking, chasing and catching for the predator leads to a huge amount of food and energy in one big-hit reward. This is why training a predator species by rewarding with food works very well. Using rest and energy saving actions to reward a prey species works much more effectively as their main concern is having enough energy to run from a predator.
When riding, the application of pressure means that the horse has to exert energy in figuring out what we are trying to get them to do. This is in addition to the discomfort of the pressure, be it literal pressure or implied. The horse quickly works out that it is better to give the correct response to the aid and exert less energy than the consequence of the pressure. They start to seek the release as this equals a reward.
Timing Riders need to know at which moment to apply pressure and when to release it or they won’t be able to teach a horse anything. For example, if you want to go from a walk to a trot you apply pressure with your legs and when the horse starts trotting you release that pressure. Seems simple doesn’t it? From a walk to a trot is simple and most riders tend to naturally use pressure, release and timing quite well. But the trick is to employ this exact clarity when doing more complex manoeuvres.
Let’s look at the turnaround; most riders pull slightly with the rein and bump with their leg throughout the turnaround. As discussed above, pressure is viewed as a negative by the horse. The rider should be releasing the pressure in the turnaround and only applying pressure when working the horse away from the turnaround. I do this by working a horse in a small, tight circle asking the horse to shape their body around my inside leg. To ask the horse to spin, I release my inside leg completely and let the horse find the turn itself. This way the turnaround becomes a positive experience for the horse as all the pressure has been released. If the horse is a little further along I may apply pressure in the turn if they try to stop or don’t commit to it, but the fact that people get this training technique backwards is why there are so many horses that don’t turn well.
Consistency The consistency component is the last piece of the puzzle. You can implement pressure, release and timing but if these three components are inconsistent your horse will be confused and will not progress.
Every moment you are riding you need to be concentrating on being consistent. For example, if your horse goes to drop out of a lope and this results in pressure each and every time, as you bump them back up into it, they will soon choose to stay in the lope. They know for certain that there will be pressure if they don’t. However, if the rider starts to get lazy in applying an appropriate level of pressure when their horse decides to break gait, the horse will feel they can do this without consequence and start to exhibit this behaviour more often.
If you ride and train your horse using these four components there is no reason why your horse will not improve session by session as they will naturally gravitate toward the behaviour that gives them a more positive experience. Remember, if you are not using any training theory when riding or teaching your horse you can be certain that you will progress at a very slow rate, if at all.