Groundwork, when referring to horses, simply means working with your horse from the ground in order to train and increase communication skills. In this blog post we are going to focus on 'Pressure and Release' and how you can begin to correctly and fully understand the concept in order to further your horse's training from the ground.
This is part 2 of a full series dedicated to Groundwork from Strides for Success. Part 1 which explains the basics and then moves into specifically dealing with 'Touch' can be found HERE >>
When we are in the saddle, most riders and trainers will use the concept of pressure and release to communicate with the horse, from the saddle, what they want the horse to do. Pressure and release is viewed as 'negative reinforcement' in that when you apply the pressure, you are placing the horse in a somewhat uncomfortable situation. However as soon as the horse makes a move towards the direction you desire, you reward him by removing the discomfort; or pressure. This is the release part of the work.
You can listen to this episode of the Daily Strides Podcast HERE >>
What is important to note however is the word 'discomfort' and how we view applying this to the horse in any given situation. I personally do not believe that the level of pressure being applied must be painful for the horse. Think of discomfort as being literally a hoof step out of the horse's current 'comfort zone'. By gradually, over time, increasing the comfort zone, you can train your horse using the pressure and release concept, without ever raising their anxiety levels.
Raising your horse's anxiety levels, regardless of the situation, rarely will produce a positive outcome. I have found that the pressure works best when it asks the horse to think a little differently and when it is applied by a person they have learned to trust. If you apply pressure to the point where it causes pain, that trust will be eroded - and we all know how difficult it is to rebuild trust when broken.
This brings us to the other all important aspects that makes the 'pressure and release' way of training work; timing and amounts of pressure applied. Having worked with riders who are literally just beginning their journey into the world of horses, these are often the most difficult parts of teaching this way of working with horses.
The challenge seems to lie in the fact that every situation is different, regardless of the horse or the circumstances. Factors such as the weather, the time of day or even just how the sun is creating shadows can lead to having to adjust the approach and the technique used. It is learning how to assess this and then proceed confidently that trips many riders up
I used the word confidently there on purpose; another factor that dictates a successful outcome when using the pressure and release system when training is the mindset of the rider, both before, during and after the groundwork or riding session with the horse. If you want your horse to become comfortable 'stretching' his comfort zone, you must be comfortable and certain of how you ask and the consequences of asking that question.
Any hesitation on your part will be seen as uncertainty to the horse, and quite frankly, would you trust someone who seemed a little 'iffy' about something? I didn't think so! Therefore, don't expect the horse to do so either.
So taking all this into account, how can you being incorporating pressure and release into your groundwork sessions in a way that will positively benefit your horse later when under the saddle?
Start slowly and have a plan for every action you take with your horse. It sounds pretty simple, but you would be surprised how many riders launch into something with no idea of just how they want the outcome to look like or feel like... Let's take something simple like asking your horse to move over in the stable. Firstly, do you want him to 'pivot' around his front end, or are you asking him to move his entire body over? Secondly, how far over are you wanting him to move? And finally, are you confident enough to remain in charge, even if things don't go quite as planned?
Now, bear in mind that the more you work with your horse, the more this will just become second nature; I rarely have to consciously ask myself these questions as I do this daily with horses. But if it is either you or your horses first time, very often becoming clear on the desired outcome before you begin is the vital key to your success.
So, assuming that you have indeed thought about all the above, you can begin to position yourself in the best possible place to make this happen. Remain calm and confident as you move around your horse and realise that once you have committed, you will most likely have to remain in this 'moment' until he makes even the slightest move in the direction you desire. I find that placing your hand on his body where your leg will be later if you were to ask a similar movement when riding is the best way to approach this. However, you can also work with your horse moving away from the pressure regardless of where your hand is placed; hindquarters etc.
The next consideration on your part is the amount of pressure applied. This varies depending on so many factors; the horse itself, the area you are touching, the type of touch etc. Start off with the smallest amount of pressure possible and then gradually build the amount you are exerting until your horse begins to respond.
The response of the horse will dictate the 'timing' factor I spoke of earlier. It is vitally important that in order for this to work, you must reward the horse for the slightest move towards what you are desiring. The reward is the release of the pressure. Now, depending on the horse and, again, the circumstances, you can release the pressure slightly and then increase again if you want him to move further over. Or you can release the pressure all together however I personally don't suggest taking your hand away as this will rather train the horse to 'run away' from pressure, rather than react to it.
You can also verbally reward your horse, something I highly recommend incorporating into your everyday interactions with your horse. I personally use a higher pitched tone when communicating a 'reward' to my horses, this way they understand what they did was correct and it is something that can later be transferred over to their training when being ridden under saddle.
What you will find, if done correctly, is that when you consistently take the same approach each and every time, the amount of pressure you will have to use to enact the desired response will lessen. This is what many riders call 'lightness', whether it be on the ground or in the saddle.
The pressure and release training methods can be used in many different ways when working with your horse. From asking them to move over in the stable, to asking them to walk forward. It is one of the most successful ways of training horses when being ridden and it can even be used, without touching the horse at all. This happens when you replace physical pressure with a more subtle 'body language' pressure.
Regardless of how it is used, the concepts of understand what you want, noticing the amount of pressure, timing the pressure and the release and then being consistent and confident throughout is vital to this working with your horse.