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Wrangling on the Range #164

The Finer Points of Pressure



The more you know about how pressure works on your horse, the
more effective a trainer you'll be.


PRESSURE IN RELATION TO horses is movement. Anything that moves
creates pressure, including your heel moving into your horse's
barrel, or your hand moving on the reins to the bit.

But you don't have to be physically connected to your horse to
create pressure. Tapping the air with a training stick in front
of your horse's nose will do it. So does raising or pointing with
your hand. Even stepping behind your horse's "drive line" (his
heartgirth) and looking intently at his hindquarters creates
pressure that will cause him to yield and face you with two eyes.


Another way to think of pressure is that it's like electricity:
You can't necessarily see it, but you know it's there. Does
electricity hurt? It depends. If you bump into a nine-volt
electric fence, you'll feel a little tingle. But if you stick
your finger into an electric socket, it'll hurt a lot.
Similarly, if you gently tap the air with a training stick, a
little pressure comes off it and your horse feels a little
uncomfortable. But if you swing that stick in a big motion from
one side of your body to the other, you create a lot of pressure
and your horse will feel markedly more uncomfortable.
Usually you'll want your horse to move away from pressure-to step
away from the training stick, to move his hindquarters away from
a heel in his side, or to give his face in response to rein
pressure. But sometimes you'll want him to stand still and
tolerate pressure-as when you're desensitizing him to the
training stick or to the pressure of a flapping object, such as a
plastic bag.
How does your horse know the difference in what you want? By
using the thinking side of his brain and by reading your body
language and the feedback you give him.


There are two types of pressure: steady and driving. Steady
pressure is consistent-like a steady pull on a rein or lead rope.
Driving pressure has a pulsating beat or rhythm to it-one, two,
three, four; one, two, three, four-as when you're tapping with
the training stick. After each set of four, you up the intensity
a bit until your horse responds.
When you ride, you use mostly steady pressure. You squeeze with
your legs or draw on the reins, and your horse moves off that
During groundwork, driving pressure often works better because
you're farther away from your horse, and he may choose to try to
ignore you.
Here's another way to think of it: Getting your horse to respond
to pressure can be like getting into the ring with a sumo
wrestler. If you tried to go hand-to-hand with a sumo wrestler,
he'd toss you right out of the ring. But if you kept him running
around, by dodging him and poking him to knock him off balance,
you might have a chance of winning.
Similarly, if you get into a steadypressure pushing match with
your 1,000-pound horse, you're not going to win, obviously. But
if you use driving pressure, upping the intensity at the end of
each count of four, you'll ultimately prompt your horse to find
the right answer.


Here's another important thing to remember about pressure: If a
horse can feel a fly land on his hindquarters, he can feel you
picking up on the rein or lead rope, squeezing with your legs, or
sitting deeper in the saddle. He can feel it; if he's not
responding in some way, that's because he's ignoring you. If you
just start using a lot more pressure to get his attention, he'll
always require that much pressure, and won't become light to your
The solution? Always start with the lightest amount of pressure
possible, but then gradually increase it until you get a correct
response For example, you may pick up on the rein two hundred
times with one ounce of pressure and your horse will still
resist, and you'll have to increase the pressure, But eventu-
ally you'll ask with that one ounce, and he'll respond
immediately--because he knows you'll just increase the pressure
if he doesn't.
Ian Francis, one of my mentors in Australia, says it like this:
You ask, you suggest, you insist, you enforce. Always follow that
pattern, and eventually asking-the least amount of pressure--will
be all you'll need. 


Horses don't automatically move away from pressure. In fact,
horses are born with an instinct to lean into and push against
steady pressure, and to run away from or fight against driving
pressure-because that's how Mother Natures tells them to survive
a predator's attack.
Your job as a trainer is to be patient as you teach your horse to
yield and soften to both types of pressure.
When working with an adult horse, it's usually easiest to first
teach him to respond to driving pressure rather than to steady
pressure. This is especially true if the horse has been allowed
to become dull, pushy, and disrespectful. Driving pressure will
get his attention, and it's harder for him to lean on driving
pressure because of its rhythm.

This series is adapted with permission from Clinton Anderson:
Philosophy, the book that accompanies his new "Fundamentals"
training package. For more information on educational materials,
or to (earn about C(inton's clinics, appearances, training year.
and horses for sate, go to DownunderHorseman Catch his
"Downunder Horsemanship" program (fllmed at the ranch in
Stephenvitte, Texas) on Fox Sports Net.
For Clinton's mounted lesson on using leg pressure to get a
simple sidepass, search that phrase at Horse


I say it a lot: Horses don't (earn from pressure, they learn from
the release of it. Yes, pressure motivates your horse to look for
the correct "answer," but it's the release that teaches him he
did the right thing-so he'll know to repeat that right thing the
next time around.
That's why timing is such a crucial element in training horses.
If your timing is off, and you release the pressure at the wrong
moment, you may reward your horse for the exact wrong behavior,
or at the least send him mixed signals.
Here's what to remember: Whatever your horse is doing the exact
instant you release pressure is what you're rewarding him for. So
if he roots at the bit and you give him more rein, you've just
rewarded him for rooting. Or if he pushes into your personal
space on the ground and you step back, you've just rewarded him
for dominating and disrespecting you.
It also works in reverse. If your horse is responding correctly
(say, softening to bit pressure) but you don't release the
pressure at that precise point, he'll become confused and
eventually learn to ignore you-in this case developing a hard
You must therefore be alert and conscientious to release the
pressure the instant your horse even attempts to respond the way
you want. Always reward the slightest try, and build from there.
The quicker you release the pressure at the right moment, the
faster your horse will understand and learn that he did the right


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