I’m still not much of a horseman.
However, in working with our two young horses (a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old) I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching videos on the topic of horse training.
Although I’ve barely scratched the surface, I am really having a lot of fun learning!
I’ve noticed a common training theme that is frequently repeated in every chapter and/or video. Some call it the principle of pressure-release. Others call it making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. I just finished reading Ray Hunt’s book, Think Harmony with Horses, in which he calls it putting the horse in a bind while always leaving an out.
It is a very simple training principle with a myriad of practical applications. Carson James has a whole library of videos applying this basic principle to different training situations.
In a nutshell, the idea is to set the horse up in a situation where it is easy for him to do what you’re trying to teach (this is the out), but difficult for him to do anything else (this is the bind). Then apply just enough pressure to encourage the horse to find the out (do what you are trying to teach).
The instant the horse makes a try (takes a step, shifts weight, turns head, etc.) in the right direction, release the pressure. Take a moment to encourage and reward the horse (pet him and talk to him) then do it again. Repeat until the horse responds smoothly with the desired response.
One benefit to this technique is that rather than trying to force the horse to do what the trainer wants, the trainer is letting the horse figure it out for himself. Rather than trying to over-ride the horse’s free will, the horse is learning to voluntarily adjust his will to submit to the trainer’s will.
Another benefit, as explained in Think Harmony with Horses, is the bond created between man and horse. Using this technique, the horse learns to consider the trainer as a trusted friend, because the trainer always leaves the horse an out. Over time, the horse gains confidence in the trainer and in his ability to follow the trainer’s prompts.
The concept is amazingly simple. The application, however, is an art requiring lots of practice.
The first trick is knowing the horse’s personality and training level well enough to know where to start and how much pressure to apply. Difficult tasks often require breaking learning down into smaller steps, so the horse can gain confidence and understand expectations before learning the difficult task.
Also, the trainer must apply just enough pressure to encourage the horse to search for the out, but not so much pressure as to panic the horse. As training progresses, the trainer should use less and less pressure, so the horse can learn a quick response to a light touch.
The second trick is timing. Pressure must be applied to encourage desired behavior and instantly released at even a tiny try toward desired behavior. The release is what lets the horse know where the out is, and the out needs to be as easy to find as possible. However, as the horse progresses in learning the out, the trainer should hold pressure to insist on a more specific try (such as a full step rather than just a head turn or a weight shift) before releasing pressure.
As I contemplated this concept of putting the horse in a bind while always leaving an out, I was reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13:
No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.
God, who intimately knows my personality and training level, sets me up in stressful situations while always leaving me an out. He knows just how much stress to apply to help me find the out without being unduly panicked. He is my faithful friend throughout…helping me find the right way and helping me learn to follow His prompts. He never forces me, but helps me learn to voluntarily submit my will to His.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)
What a faithful friend and personal trainer!