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.