As Irony would have it, I read an article in a popular horse magazine written by a popular trainer defining the language used to communicate cues. It reads, Pressure is any cue that gets a response from a horse.
This incredibly misleading sentence sums up the entire reason for my blog.
Pressure is not a cue. Pressure is a means to enforce a cue. The sad part about these thoughts about pressure is that it’s usually the horses who pay the price. Unless of course the trainer gets kicked in the head because of excessive cueing.
Here are some excerpts from the definition of pressure (Merriam Webster):
1) the burden physical or mental distress
2) the application of force to something by something else in direct contact with it
3) the action of force against an opposing force
4) the stress or urgency of matters demanding attention
I can’t help but notice words like burden, distress and application of force. This is what pressure really is. It’s not a cue and it’s not the only language of the horse. I’m finding horses are bilingual. They speak both pressure and attraction.
I think the sole reason that the subject of pressure is so misunderstood is that its opposite, attraction, is not mainstream.
Attraction is mainstream for marine mammal trainers, free flight bird (avian) trainers and a growing number of dog trainers.
Training with pressure goes into the category of, “This is how it’s always been done.” But does that make it right?
Even great training books like True Horsemanship Through Feel, by the late Bill Dorrance, is about pressure. In my mind, following the feel is simply responding to pressure. Eventually the horse learns to follow the tiniest suggestion of pressure, which most likely is labeled as feel. And feel is another word for pressure.
I think it’s time we started asking our horses, How does it feel? They might be tired of speaking only pressure. Maybe they’d like to start speaking something else with you.
My experience is with wounded horses who cannot be pressured. My quest is to open lines of communication with them that don’t remind them of their past. So far everything that I do with attraction based methods is turning out to be like a magic wand.
I’m not saying pressure is bad. I’m saying the misuse of pressure is detrimental, especially to the horse’s mind. I believe horses deserve interactions with attraction as well as pressure. I vote for a balance, the same balance I see my herd of four using with each other.
So let’s not disguise the use of pressure by saying it’s anything other than pressure. Let’s not assume that simply tapping a horse with a training stick named after a vegetable is much different than an all out whack. Calling pressure “our line of communication” may make us feel better, but I’m not sure how our horses feel being the recipient of it. In whatever amount.
I love what I’m seeing with my horses when they’re first taught a behavior with attraction. That behavior is then put on cue, such as a hand signal or a verbal cue. Then later after the behavior is understood, I can use pressure if I need to, but usually I don’t. It truly is an amazing discovery for me.
I think deep down most people wish there was an alternative to pressure and would rather communicate with the horses in a manner that doesn’t feel so forceful or irritating to the horse. Thank goodness there is!