This past weekend was a whirlwind for both Erica and myself, as we attended a two day intensive advanced ground training clinic generously hosted by Days End Farm Horse Rescuein Maryland. This clinic was taught by Trevor Carter of Carter Ranch Horse and put together by the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) Forever Foundation, which specifically partners with Trevor and his wife Tara to provide hands-on learning opportunities for rescues across the U.S. to increase their horsemanship, that will in turn benefit adoptable horses and increase their ability to find forever homes.
For weeks now, we've been watching an incredibly detailed video series online that provides a basis for all horse handling for every level of participant. Indeed, our group of clinic peers ranged from professional trainers to program directors and all the way to volunteers from a wide variety of rescue organizations.
To begin with, it's worth mentioning that training a rescue horse is somewhat of a unique skill set, as you are not really teaching the horse specialization, but rather a broad spectrum of abilities and even more so, coping mechanisms. We want to create horses that can do a lot of different things well, a horse that will say "Yes!" to anything we ask, and a horse that doesn't dissolve under stress or confusion. Very often, rescue horses have to be suitable for amateur riders at the end of their training, so it is important to teach them how to problem solve and control their emotions, as that's what makes a nice amateur horse.
Pressure and release is how we train our horses for anything and everything; it is the basis for all equine education. We apply pressure to indicate a desired behavior, and we release the pressure when the horse has responded appropriately. This is not strictly reserved for physical pressure (from a halter, bridle, ridden aid etc) but can also mean spacial pressure and emotional pressure from the handler towards the horse.
An Exercise in Herd Bound Behavior
On the first morning, we worked in the round pen with "The Three Amigas", Holiday, Fables and Yahaira, three mares that were best buds and a little difficult to catch in the field. I have never worked more than one horse in a round pen, but watching them interact was extremely educational and I can tell you I'll be doing it again.
Fables was the primary suspect in equation of who-is-impossible-to-catch, but you could see that she was not acting as a solitary agent. Yahaira was also quite flighty, and Holiday was a follower, so with all their instincts together telling them to leave, Fables chose to go with the other horses rather than stick around with the human.
The premise was simple, if any of the horses chose to stand still or come off the rail and hang out with Trevor, he let them be, and released the pressure. As soon as they chose to leave and travel in a group, they received pressure in the form of him slapping ropes against his thighs, and in one spot of the round pen, throwing the rope lightly on Fables' flank. There was high pressure at this spot and this spot only, as she had the entirety of the rest of the circle to decide to distance herself from the other horses.
Any of the three were rewarded with a release of spacial pressure if they chose to slow down, distance themselves from the herd, or stop altogether. Only the horse(s) that chose to leave were given pressure, and as soon as they started thinking about staying, the pressure was released. This encouraged them to stand still and stand separately (after some time), as this was the most reasonable course of action. They were not forced to make this decision, and when they made a bad decision, they were not punished, but it was uncomfortable.
Timing & Varying Your Releases
It's important to note that pressure has a wide range of variable levels, from no pressure all the way to a lot, and everything in between. If it looks like the horse is thinking about making the right decision, and you see him/her getting "warmer" to the solution, the pressure decreases, but doesn't fully release. It's like the game Hot & Cold that you play when you're a kid, and you have to guide a friend to a specific location. "You're getting warmer! No, colder colder!!". This is how we guide our horses towards the solution we're looking for.
Pressure is not a game of all or nothing, it is a constant communication line of feel and responses changing to a world that is not static. Whether you are riding or handling on the ground, unless your horse is asleep, they are communicating with their environment and you, which requires constant flexibility with your ability to respond.
Timing is also incredibly integral to the success of the pressure-and-release system of training, as that's what indicates to the horse where you would like them to end up. If you never release, they simply start tuning your aids out, or they assume that's the new baseline for function, and require MORE pressure to accomplish a goal. If your timing is inaccurate, it impedes your horse's understanding of the task at hand, so being able to read their body language and communication in order to respond appropriately is significant.
I'll be back in the next post to tell you more about this action packed weekend!!