When we think about a horse being reactive to the aids, we think about pressure, and the little details of how we feel, apply, assess and release pressure. We all feel pressure differently; what feels light to one can feel heavy to another. - How much weight do you keep in your reins? - Where do you feel the contact? - Are your arms or legs tired at the end of a ride? - Do you need gloves to keep your grip? - Do you use fingers or fists on the reins? - Are you doing more work than your horse?
It is easy to use pressure badly – either, using too much at the wrong time, and for too long, or not enough at the right time. You might think that your horse is insensitive. But if a horse can feel a fly land on its coat and flinch to get rid of it, it can surely feel a light aid.
As horses have evolved to read the most subtle body language cues, we don't need physical contact to apply pressure. How we stand, act and move around a horse is highly meaningful to them. But its up to us to make it meaningful. If we are distracted or inconsistent such that horses can't make sense of our movements and gestures, they quickly learn to ignore us. I refer to 'Air Pressure' as all those different levels of pressure we apply before we make contact.
WHY DOES A HORSE RESPOND TO PRESSURE? For the same reason that we do! To relieve the pain or discomfort of it. If I stand on a sharp stone with bare feet, why do I jump up and quickly lift my leg? Because it hurts?
No, not because it hurts – but because it stops hurting when I get off it. The point being... (excuse the pun) it is the release that trains – not the pressure. Behaviour rewarded is behaviour repeated.
Tom Roberts often expressed this in relation to what profits the horse, and teaching a horse where to find profit. i.e. “That will profit you” / “That will profit you not”. Its another way of saying: make the right thing easy for the horse.
WASTED PRESSURE Wasted pressure is when we apply pressure that confuses, contradicts or fails to motivate a horse enough to change its behaviour. The horse habituates and learns to ignore these:
• Pressure that is meaningless to the horse • Pressure the horse can’t escape from • Pressure that continually builds up but fades away • Pressure that stays at an ineffective level for too long • Two or more conflicting pressures on at the same time (e.g. hands pulling while legs are pushing)