Timing and Releasing Pressure

To round out my last couple of discussions on balance and feel, I thought it appropriate to repost an article on timing. I recently posted an essay on the timing of the application of pressure, so this article is more about the importance of the timing of the release of pressure. I hope it is interesting enough to make the long read worthwhile. Cheers.
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This article is about the timing of a release of pressure when working with a horse. I consider this essay to contain some of the most important concepts every rider needs to consider. I hope you’ll think about some of these ideas.

I’m pretty sure most of you know that horses learn from the release of pressure. Learning for a horse does not come from pressure itself because the purpose of pressure is just to make life uncomfortable enough to encourage a horse to try something different that would provide comfort once again. When it does choose a response we want, we remove the pressure. It is the absence of this pressure that teaches a horse it chose wisely.

We all know this and it is drummed into us by just about every teacher we ever have. In fact, the importance of releasing the pressure at the right time is so important that it is common for novice rider’s to be screamed at by their teacher, “release, release, release,” when a horse makes a change. The emphasis is placed on the importance of releasing the pressure immediately the horse makes a change. Most people are taught (i) use enough pressure to motivate a horse to search for a response that we want, and (ii) completely remove the pressure the instant the horse makes a change. This is about all that people are taught and there is very little other explanation about when and how to release pressure. I believe the subject is much more complex than most people give any thought to.

Let’s start with when to release pressure.

Firstly, it must be understood that when it comes to training horses, learning only happens when they have a change of thought. If a horse yields with its feet, but not with its mind, a horse learns nothing from the exercise. Take for example when we ask a horse to halt in response to pressure from the reins. We increase the feel of the reins and the horse stops moving its feet. If we release the pressure from the reins and the horse continues to stand still, our reins have probably inspired the horse to change from thinking forward to thinking halt.

However, if when we release the pressure of the reins the horse automatically moves forward again (like when you release the brake on a car with automatic transmission) then there was unlikely to be a change of thought. In this case, the horse has not learned to yield to the reins with a change of thought and releasing the pressure just because the feet stopped moving did nothing to improve the situation. All we did was use enough braking pressure in the reins to impose our will on the horse to stop moving. But it was never its idea, just ours.

So when we say we should release the pressure when the horse makes a change, we really mean, “make a change of thought.” Without a change of thought there is no learning, therefore, don’t release the pressure until the horse’s thought changes.

This is a vitally important concept to grasp because it then gives a clearer picture of what is a well-timed release of pressure. As I said above, most of us are taught that we should release the pressure the instant a horse does what we want. Yet, as I have explained, often this may be the wrong time to release if the horse’s thought has not yet changed. We need to hold or even increase the pressure (or whatever it takes) until the horse has a change of thought. Then we should remove the pressure.

I want to add something else for your consideration that contradicts what many are taught. This is going to surprise you a little (if you haven’t already read about it in my book).

Even if we wait to release the pressure until the horse has changed its mind, it is not urgent that we release immediately. The timing of the release is dependent on how long a horse holds the thought we want it to have.

Let’s go back to the halt again. If we apply the reins and that inspires a horse to change it’s thinking from forward to standing still, we have until a new idea pops into the horse’s head in order to release the pressure. So if a horse thinks standing still for 5 seconds is a good idea, then we have a window of up to 5 seconds before we should release the pressure in order to have good timing. On the other hand, if the horse can only hold the thought to stand still for half a second, we only have half a second to release the pressure before our release is too late.

After we have worked out the timing of our releases, we need to give thought to the quality of a release.

For most people, a release is black and white; all or nothing. We go from using enough pressure to get a change to zero pressure to reward a horse for that change. As I see it, there are two problems with this approach.

To begin with, when we try to be clear that we are releasing the pressure we try to make it all or nothing. That is, we go from X amount of pressure to zero pressure in the blink of an eye. Often this startles a horse and snaps them out of the thought we wanted to them have. By being abrupt in the way we release the pressure we sometimes inadvertently interrupt their focus on the job and as a result, install a brace in our horse. We don’t mean to do it, but I see all the time horses that are bothered by the abruptness with which we release the pressure. So try to be smooth and not quick with how you remove the pressure.

The second part of releasing pressure is that by offering a horse X amount of pressure and then zero amount of pressure, we often lose the connection to our horse. Working with a horse is a constant conversation through our reins, seat and legs. This conversation is ongoing and should never cease. We ask a horse something and they come back with an answer or another question. Then we reply and they reply. It should go on and on throughout the ride. The conversation is by the back and forth exchange of feel (reins, legs and seat) between our horse and us. When we release the pressure completely, we lose the feel and the conversation. It’s like we hung up the telephone on our horse in mid conversation.

We don’t have to offer zero pressure for a horse to feel rewarded and understand the lesson. We do have to offer a better deal that feels more comfortable, but that does not mean we present no feel to the horse and kill the lines of communication dead. Reducing the pressure is still a reward if we have used the minimum amount of pressure to start with, in order to implant a new thought into a horse’s thinking. The softer a horse is, the closer we can offer a release of zero feel, but it should never become zero because we want to keep the conversation open.

In summary, an important decider in the timing of a release should be determined by when a horse changes it thought and how long it holds that changed thought before a new thought enters its mind. Furthermore, the release of pressure should be smooth and not abrupt and almost never should it be so big that there is zero feel between the horse and the rider.

Photo: I fear this woman has timed the release of her pressure quite badly.


The Effect of Timing of a Rider's Aids

I recently came across a video discussion regarding the importance of a rider’s aids in order to obtain correctness. Specifically, the video discussed a real-life problem of training a horse to perform a flying change. During the flying change, the horse changed leads in the front end, but not in the back end resulting in a disunited or crossfire canter. The trainer concluded it was a problem with the timing of the request for a lead change being after the moment of suspension, which they said was too late and causing the screw-up. 
 
What I am about to say will raise the hackles of a lot of instructors and coaches, but stick with me for a little bit and I will explain. I know I am going to struggle to get the words right because I am not 100% certain what I am trying to say. My thoughts on this subject are not yet totally clear, but I think the topic is worth examining whether I am right or wrong.
 
I believe the timing of the aids has its place in achieving our goals and we should all be trying to improve our timing, but I also believe it is a generally misunderstood concept. Let’s talk about three examples that I hope will better clarify what I mean.
 
If you ask a horse to yield its forehand to the left and move the left foot first, then timing the signal to coincide with the moment the horse is prepared to take his weight off the left fore will be important. But if the rider is late with their signal (and applies it when the right fore is about to become un-weighted) there is a good chance the horse will lead with its right fore rather than its left fore. So this is a case where the timing of a rider’s aids affects the “when” of the response, which leads to affecting the “how” of the response.
 
However, if the goal is to yield the shoulder to the left and it doesn’t matter which foot moves first, the timing of the rider’s aids is irrelevant. The difference between the rider being early or late will be a difference of one step. Therefore, the difference in timing does not lead to a difference in whether the horse will yield its shoulder or not, but rather a difference in when it will yield its shoulder.
 
Now let's look at the flying change issue talked about in the video I watched. The trainer was arguing that the reason the horse disunited (cross fired) in the flying change was because the rider was not asking for the lead change during the moment of suspension in the canter stride. I have heard several big and small name trainers talk about this and I have to say I don’t believe it. The loss of a correct and balanced change of leads is not related to the poor timing of a rider’s aids, but due to crookedness and tension in a horse. If a rider misses the moment of suspension to give the signal to the horse to change leads (and assuming every element to do that is in place) the horse will simply change leads a stride later. No biggie. But it won’t screw up the ability of a horse to change leads if it has already been taught how to do that.
 
Let’s look at another example that I saw at a clinic by a visiting American trainer about a year ago. He was trying to help a rider lengthen the stride of her horse’s walk. He had her apply more left leg pressure when the left hind foot of the horse was furthest back and then right leg pressure when the horse’s right hind leg was the furthest back. The idea behind this approach was the rider’s left leg would help the horse put more effort into bringing the left hind foot forward and visa versa when the rider applied right leg. In theory, this was meant to elongate the horse’s stride at the walk. What was interesting is that more than half the time the rider got their timing wrong and applied their left leg when the horse’s right leg was maximally back and right leg when the horse’s right hind was maximally back. Yet, the horse still made a good change and was able to reach under itself with much more effort despite the poor timing of the rider’s aids.
 
Before I say anything more, I want to be clear that I am assuming that a horse already knows and understands how to respond to the aids without stress and without confusion. If this is not true, then this article is not talking about that horse.
 
In my view, the timing of a rider’s aids influence when a change of movement will occur, but it does not directly influence how it will occur. I think this is a general rule and not a golden rule, but I believe overall it stacks up pretty well. For example, when asking a horse to yield its shoulder in a particular direction, when it happens will depend on a rider’s timing and result in whether the left foreleg first or right foreleg first. But the timing won’t determine if the horse yields its shoulder or doesn’t yield its shoulder, just when. The movement can be influenced by the “when”, so it could be argued that the timing of the aids indirectly effects the outcome via when the aids are applied. But that is different to the timing of a rider’s signals directly altering the way a horse performs a movement. 
 
I’m unsure how far you can take this argument because I think it is probably 100 percent true. As I said in the beginning, this hypothesis might create some disturbance in the cosmos and cause a few people to experience seizures, but whether you agree or disagree thinking about it can only be a good thing. 
 
Photo: This perfectly timed photograph makes it look like the handler is lifting the horse. Now that’s great timing!
 

A Rider's Vigilance and Discipline

At every clinic, I meet people that have a lot of talent to be good horse people. I see in them an ability to not only have the physical aptitude to apply their knowledge, but they also have a good sense of awareness and feel when working with a horse. They are very capable of seeing what is going wrong, why it is going wrong and what needs to change to help their horse. But for some reason, despite the diligent work they have put into their horsemanship, the improvements I expect to see from one clinic to another don’t always meet my expectations or theirs. I know they are putting in the time and I know they have a desire to see improvement, but the dream and the reality don’t always come together.

 

It was maybe 3 or 4 years ago when I was home, taking a break from clinics, that I had the crazy idea to ride one of my own horses. It was both a shock to me and a shock to my gelding, Riley. I was riding in the paddock when I noticed my wife had come out to see what I was doing. I guess she was as surprised as Riley that I decided to saddle up and ride and maybe she was checking to see if I had a brain embolism.

 

After a few minutes of watching, Michèle said, “If that was a client’s horse you wouldn’t let him do that.”

 

I can’t recall what it was that I was letting Riley do, but I do remember turning to her and replying in a whiny little boy’s voice, “Yeah maybe, but it’s Riley.” As if Riley was the cutest and smartest horse in the whole wide world and made of chocolate.

 

I knew at the time and I know now that Michèle was right. I was letting something slip by with Riley that I would have definitely addressed with somebody else’s horse. Why? Because I knew I could with Riley and because I was being a lazy arse.

 

I have thought a lot about that day. When it comes to working hard I have always been a minimalist. Some have called me lazy, but I prefer to view myself as a more highly evolved member of the species. It is my ambition to not die from overwork. The problem with that philosophy comes when others depend on me to not be lazy. By not being vigilant and mindful in my session with Riley I was failing my horse. I made Riley the victim of my lack of self-discipline. I had the skill and the awareness, but I was just being lazy.

 

Since that day, I have tried very hard to not repeat my sins when working any horse - whether a student’s or one of mine.

 

However, I see the same vice in many people who attend clinics. Usually while at a clinic, their work ethic and self-discipline are very high. Yet, it falls apart for so many when they are alone at home and the teacher’s eyes are not on them. For some reason, when we are not paying money to be picked on and terrorized by our teachers our vigilance and discipline become secondary to our need to have a pleasant ride. I am convinced of this because so many people I see are much more capable than their horse’s performance would indicate.

 

I realize there are many factors that contribute to the problem. I think many people are like me and they own a nice horse (like Riley) that generously forgives their lack of discipline. Other people struggle to find the confidence to push the boundaries when the guiding hand of some expert is absent. And of course, the biggest problem for most people is to find the time to be consistent in the work.

 

But having said all that, the point I want to make today is in regard to a person’s discipline. Awareness and feel are no help to us if we don’t have the self- discipline and vigilance to use them all the time in every session. They are like money – it’s nice to have but bloody useless if we don’t use it.

 

As a teacher, I struggle to know how to motivate people to have a high degree of vigilance and discipline if it is not naturally present in every sweat gland. Sometimes serendipity takes care of it by giving a person a horse that requires these skills in order to minimize visits to the hospital emergency room. That tends to motivate people to dig deep. But when a person has a “Riley” horse in their life, what is a teacher to do?

 

To be honest, I have found only two approaches that have successfully driven people to greater discipline and consistency.

 

The first is for the people who have the skill but are unmotivated. Basically, they are being lazy. My strategy has been to call them out for their laziness. I have told people they are just bloody lazy and if they don’t use the talent they have I can’t help them and they have achieved as much as they ever will. I hate doing that. A couple of times it has led to tears (but I tried not show my tears too much). I always feel like an ogre and worry I have ruined their confidence. But each time it has always worked out well. People seem to take it as a challenge and when I see them again 6 months later the changes have always been amazing. This is always a last resort for me and I still feel worried about putting people in the naughty corner and coming down on them so hard, but so far it has never been a mistake.

 

The second approach that I have used successfully is to work the student’s work to demonstrate what their horse is capable of doing and then guiding them step-by-step through the process. For some people, this approach seems to excite them to try to achieve what I was able to achieve. They doubted their horse's ability to make a change, but when shown what it could be like they step up. They challenge themselves to make a difference and both the owner and the horse turn out winners.

 

I have even on occasion made bets with people that if they achieve a certain goal by the next clinic I will buy them a bottle of wine and if they don’t succeed they owe me a bottle of Scotch. So far I am several bottles of wine down and am still waiting for my first bottle of Laphroag. But I am more than okay with that.

 

What I have learned from these experiences is what I learned from Michèle critiquing my ride on Riley. Despite being a more highly evolved individual than most humans, I am trying to get in touch with my more primitive instincts and work harder at being vigilant and disciplined in both my horsemanship and my teaching. So my message to all of you other highly evolved people is try to be more like the less advanced of our species by not being lazy in your horsemanship. We owe it to the horses.

 

Photo: Thanks to Ben Moxon and Sari Maydew who kindly gifted us the rainbow halter and lead, Riley and I were able to ride in support of equal marriage rights for all.

Obstacle Challenge -Breaking It Down

The idea of teaching horsemanship using man-made obstacles has always seemed problematic to me. I’ve seen a lot of people working horses over poles, tarpaulins, see-saws, bridges, gates, pedestals etc. It is definitely fun for the people and gives horses a break from the monotony of working in an arena. But I have long questioned its usefulness as a training tool.

 

Some people think working over and around obstacles will better prepare their horse for the varied and unexpected situations they might find on a trail. Other people use them to overcome the boredom that so many horses and people experience in their daily workout. Recently trail obstacles have even become a competitive sport, so for some negotiating obstacles is a way of being rewarded with blue ribbons and accolades for their excellent training..

 

Then there are the people who see obstacle training as a way to stretch a horse’s comfort zone and achieve a better connection and relationship with their horse. This is the group that I hope will come to clinics and this is the group that I want to talk about today.

 

Last Friday I taught my very first trail class and we were lucky enough to have available a venue that offered a wide range of obstacles with varying degrees of difficulty.

 

I have to admit I did not come to the idea of teaching this day with enthusiasm (in fact, it was more like kicking and screaming). I had to be talked into it. The reason why I approached the day with trepidation is that in the past when I have watched clinics of people working on an obstacle course, good horsemanship was a secondary thought. Even with all the best intentions of the clinician and the riders, when faced with an obstacle a horse did not want to cross, the focus quickly became doing what was necessary to get a horse to traverse to the other side of the obstacle. It just seems to be human nature. A competition is set up between successfully achieving a task and presenting the best horsemanship possible. So a lot of “making a horse do something” tends to be used in the obstacle training I have witnessed at clinics. If you see it from that point of view it is quite understandable why I was less than enthusiastic about the idea.

 

Nevertheless, I agreed and I realized that it was my responsibility to make sure the training did not descend into a competition between the rider’s wishes and the horse’s needs. I needed to make sure the training was a joint partnership where all views and all opinions were considered and compromises were possible. I didn’t want it to be a match of wills between riders and horses resulting in an outcome of winners and losers. I only wanted human winners and equine winners.

 

I developed a plan on how I would approach the teaching. The first and only priority was to ensure that the training was of benefit to the horse and rider. I wanted the both of them to come away having learned something that would benefit them in the rest of their training and education. It needed to expand their education and more importantly it needed to positively add to their relationship. If those criteria were not met, I figured the experiment was a failure.

 

With that in mind, I set out some strategies that I tried to impart throughout the day. Here is a short list of the mains points I wanted each rider at every obstacle to consider.

 

*  How to break something down into small chunks.

 

*. How to block what you don't want, and allow what you do want.

 

* How to go slow and slow down a horse's emotions.

 

* How to focus on the horse's thoughts and emotions and not the job and allow everything to fall into place rather than make it happen. Get the thoughts and emotions taken care of first and the rest is easy.

 

* How a little persistence goes a lot further than a lot of insistence.

 

 *How training to negotiate each obstacle was the same process as improving trot transitions or bridling problems or teaching shoulder in.

 

The final point is particularly important.

 

From a horse’s perspective, there is no difference between learning to walk over a scary object like a bridge than learning to walk into a trailer or line up next to a mounting block or bend around a circle or teach flying changes. It’s all the same and the principles underlying these things are always the same. To me, this is the pivotal point I tried to impart. If you can practice the principles of good horsemanship in the arena, then you can apply those same principles to your obstacle course, your trail ride, your jumping, your games training or your cow work – it’s all the same.

 

We are talking about doing another urban trail day next year. I think I will approach it with less apprehension than I did last week because I have learned the value of such a day is entirely dependent on how I teach it. I realize now that the failure of past playground training clinics that I have witnessed has really been a failure of the approach to the teaching.

 

But having said that, we should never forget that it behoves the rider to take seriously the idea that successively negotiating an obstacle is far less important than using it as a means to improve focus, clarity, and softness. There is nothing to be gained without those three elements being the top priority.

 

Video: The video is from the obstacle clinic where a horse is being taught to cross a suspension bridge. It shows the elements that culminate to help a horse deal with difficult tasks – breaking down the elements into simple tasks – slowing down the horse’s mind – being absolutely clear – giving plenty of time.

 

Transitions

Horse trainers and riding instructors talk about the importance of transitions in developing balance, obedience, and fluidity in the movement of a horse. Transitions are often thought of as a panacea to many training issues. But they also give a rider an insight into the feelings a horse is carrying towards the work. As I have said before, a horse reveals more about how he feels not by what he is doing, but how he reacts when you interrupt what he is doing. In that regard, transitions very often shine a light on problems that lurk in the shadows.

 

A transition is usually thought of as a change from one gait to another (eg walk to trot or trot to walk). But they can also, and should also, be within the same gait (eg slow walk to medium walk to extended walk to slow walk). Both are invaluable and should be mastered for exactly the same reasons.

 

One thing I feel a lot of people misunderstand about transitions is the idea of energy or impulsion that accompanies a transition. A common mistake is the belief that as a horse goes from walk to trot to canter there should be an ever-increasing level of impulsion and effort from a horse. Conversely, transitioning from a canter to a walk equates to a decrease of impulsion and effort. In my mind, this is not how I like to approach the transitions. I always want my horse to be putting out the effort I ask irrespective of the gait. With that in mind, I feel a transition from say a walk to a trot is nothing more than a re-arrangement of the feet from a 4 beat to a 2 beat pattern, with the horse putting out the same amount of effort. The same is true when directing the horse from a 2-beat trot to a 4-beat walk. I don’t want a loss of effort; I just want the movement of the feet to be rearranged.  If we train our horse that a transition is about by changing the effort and impulsion, then we will build in problems such as the walk will always be the same walk and the trot will always be the same trot with no variation. If we ask for more impulsion or more effort at the walk we run the risk of our horse interpreting that to mean he should trot. I see this at nearly every clinic.

 

In a broader sense, a transition can be any change we ask of a horse. It can be a transition from one direction to another or a rein back to a forward gait or a leg yield to a shoulder in or a turn on the haunches to a turn on the forehand. Anything that requires a change in a horse can be thought of as a transition.

 

As I said, transitions can be incredibly valuable as a training tool. But they are only of value if we focus on the quality of the transition. This is where people sometimes get stuck in their thinking. Often times the ability to perform a transition is considered the measure of the training success. But this is not true. In my opinion, the quality of a transition, any transition, is dependent on the change in a horse’s feet being preceded by a change in the horse’s thoughts. It’s not the transition of the body that counts, but the transition of the thought. Without a change in thought, there can be no quality to the transition and little for a horse to learn.

 

An example of this that I see regularly at clinics is how a horse transitions from a walk to a trot or a trot to a walk. I estimate in the majority of cases I see at clinics, horses leap into a trot from a walk and the same is often true when asked to canter from a trot. The transition is abrupt. Often the horse throws their neck up, hollow their back and sometimes flings their head. In most cases, this happens because the horse is not thinking forward at the lower gait and holds back from thinking forward when a rider asks them to change gait. I know this because in the vast majority of instances the problem is solved by just helping a horse think more forward in the lower gait. I want the transition from walk to trot or trot to canter to appear seamless – if you blinked you would hardly notice that something changed.

 

Much of the time when we ask for a transition a horse is not prepared for a change of thought and instead of giving a horse a new thought to go with the new task we simply block the thought it already has. It has learned to stop going with the old idea, but not go with the new idea. This leads to resistance and ill feelings.

 

As an example, so many horses that I ride at clinics will automatically slow their feet when I ask for them to make a turn. This is because when I pick up the feel on the inside rein it blocks their thought to be forward. Rather changing their thought to go with me in the new direction with the same effort, they grind to a sluggish motion as if there is a wall in front of them. The horse has learned that an interruption of their thought is not a signal to take on board a new thought, but instead to hinder the old thought.

 

No matter what type of transition we ask of our horse, the quality and value of it is dependent on our effectiveness for evoking a horse to change its thought. It needs to swap the old thought for the new thought as if it was its own idea. Without that mental gymnastics, there will be plenty of physical exercise for a horse, but very little learning that will pay dividends in the future.