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.

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.

Balance In Our Training Methods

Perhaps one of the most often taught concepts in the horse training world is how important feel, timing, and balance are to achieving great success. However, it’s hard to find a detailed breakdown of what each of these elements actually means. Sometimes a guru will preach on feel and timing, but I can’t recall ever coming across a discussion of balance. It’s like it is the poor the cousin nobody wants to talk about.
So what is meant by the term “balance” in the context of feel, timing, and balance?
I can only give you my view and you could probably ask 20 trainers and get 20 different answers, but I’ll risk it and take the plunge.
In the context of feel, timing, and balance we are not talking about balance in the physical sense where the centre of gravity of a horse is at its most stable. That’s a different sort of balance. When talking about balance I am referring to the “how much” phenomena. It’s the Goldilocks syndrome. Did I use too much pressure or too little pressure or was it just right? Am I too early with my release or too late or was it just right? How much bend do I require or how much inside rein versus outside rein should I apply? The correct balance is when the scale is not tipped one way or the other for the job being asked.
It could be argued that if we do too much or too little we can correct in a microsecond, so how important is the correct balance? It’s important because when we have the balance just right, we are being as clear as we possibly can with our communication. The clarity that balance brings is a big part of a horse finding comfort and calmness in the work.
Most of you have probably heard the aphorism, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing less easy.” It has formed the basis of a lot of preaching that goes on in the clinics of many gurus. When done with the correct mindset I think this concept offers a very clear road to success. However, I have to say that as an observer of a lot of clinics I have witnessed many people miss the point of this saying. Too many times I have noticed some horse people approach their work by making the wrong thing hard (or even impossible) and the right thing less hard. No horse wants to work in such an environment. In good horsemanship, we should focus on making the right thing as easy as possible and not focus on making the wrong thing as hard as possible.
I think the problem stems from a lack of understanding about balance. I mean, how “less easy” do we need to make something to encourage a horse to search for a different response? And how “easy” do we need the correct response to feel like that would encourage a horse to want to repeat that response? That’s the art of good balance. 
A skilled horse person offers a good balance in everything they do with a horse. The power of good balance is to have the horse believe its response was not imposed on him, but that it was his choice because it clearly was a great choice to make. When we impose decisions on a horse they begin to dread the work. But when they feel that there is nothing but rewarding choices in front of them, work is not quite so burdensome. Good balance allows us to offer a horse choice, but sneakily make sure the option we want the horse to choose is slightly weighted in our favour. 
In a nutshell, good balance is the halfway mark between too much and too little. It will vary from horse to horse and task to task. Plus, what is good balance right now can change in the time it takes a politician to sell their soul for a campaign donation. Good balance helps bring clarity to what is being asked of the horse. And good balance takes some of the horse’s feelings of being worked out of the work.
There is one final last point I want to make. Perhaps some of you have glimmered that balance is intricately linked to the other components of training – feel and timing. We need to have balance in the way we apply our feel and timing and at the same time, there must be feel and timing in the way we apply balance. In essence, the three parts of feel, timing, and balance only work as a whole and cannot be applied separately with expectations of success.
Photo: We should aspire to work horses by balancing the scales between too much and too little.

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!

The Essence of Good Horsemanship NOW an eBOOK

After a lot of harassment from various people who like ebooks rather than paperback, I have finally pulled my finger out and my book The Essence of Good Horsemanship is now available in kindle format from Amazon.com. http://amzn.to/2DnHIW7​

Stop Driving Your Horse Crazy

It's difficult for people to not pick on everything a horse does. We all seem to want to touch our horse and ask him not to look away or not to eat etc even when we are not wanting anything from them. We drive them crazy with our nagging. 
In this video I illustrate the typical situation many horse people deal with that is about constantly criticising a horse without bringing clarity to what a horse can do to avoid being nagged and corrected by the owner.