A Popular (Inaccurate) View of Pressure

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!



3 thoughts on “A Popular (Inaccurate) View of Pressure

  1. Brilliant post! What do you think a horse’s perspective is on the kind of “pressure” that is just a touch? For example – my new horse Billy came to me completely “desensitized”. He’d been a rental trail horse, and apparently a good one, because he is perfectly safe AND agreeable to ride. However, he was so non-responsive to everything – including sounds – that we thought for a while that he was deaf! (turns out he was ignoring us)
    Looking at it from his perspective – perhaps he’d learned to tune out all the meaningless human chatter – and effectively filter only the “loudest” cues – stop, go, turn, etc.

    When we first got him, he would NOT move when I went into the stall to put his feed in. He’d stand there in the way looking eagerly at the food – but blocking my path to the feeder. At first I had to really push on him to get him to step aside. He just stood there like a wall. Eventually I’d get a tiny weight shift – and give a dramatic “release” (hopefully not crummy… ’cause the food was coming…)

    Within a few weeks – a light touch anywhere on his body – would move him however I wanted. It felt like simply getting him to understand what I was asking. I guess I’d compare it to the same kind of touch you’d give a strange person in the grocery store – if they were somewhat blocking your path and you were about to squeeze through behind them. A touch on the shoulder, along with “excuse me”. Seems polite enough?

    Contrast this with the annoyance of tapping. I never liked anyone to tap on me – and I don’t do it to my horses. My teenage son knows the best way to get me to finish up with the computer so he can use it – tapping. That is if he doesn’t go too far and I spring out of the chair and choke him!

    So, is a touch/push like I used on Billy considered “pressure” – or is it more a communication method? If someone is teaching you dancing, or riding, or gymnastics – if they physically guide your body into a position that is desired – it can be helpful.

    How do you think that works with horses?


    • Hi Gina,
      Brilliant question. “Is touch/push with Billy considered pressure or is it a communication method?” Let’s see if I can answer it!

      In my experience, I try to find out just what the touch/push means to the horse. Does he view your touch as pressure? For instance when folks spell out the DeafBlind alphabet on a hand, I don’t believe there’s pressure involved, nor is it taught with pressure. Each touch means something very specific.

      For Billy, (www.hoofprints.com/billy.html) given his age (late teens) and his experience( former ranch/rental trail horse), I think your touch at this point in his life would be more like DeafBlind signing for him. It seems he knows exactly what you want by your touch, given the fact that he’s responding so quickly.

      When you went into his stall with him and he wouldn’t move, it just sounds like he truly didn’t know what to do. You communicated with a push, which would be pressure, however, like I said, with his experience, he may view a push as part of his alphabet. For Billy, I would view the push as guide, because that is what he knows.

      Plus you gave him a meaningful reward as well as a release which clearly communicated to him that he gave you what you wanted. You’re adding new words to his dialogue with you. In that interaction, you were explaining to him, “When you give me what I want, I in turn will give you something you want.” Anytime we can reward above and beyond a ‘crummy release’ such as with a few pellets, or something the horse really enjoys, I believe it creates a very powerful memory as well as a super powered motivation for the horse to repeat that behavior.

      More about the push. If I were to use a push with DaVinci, my horse recovering from Post Traumatic Stress, it would trigger a panic attack. For him, a push means something bad. Billy may actually be looking for a push as it’s how he may have been taught. So again, the push for Billy may be part of his alphabet, but a push, even the thought of a push, for DaVinci is probably a major profanity in his mind. (He’s the one that teaching me so much about targeting!)

      In contrast, if my young Clyde Raleigh was in Billy’s place in the stall, rather than a push, I’d use a target stick to attract him to where I wanted him to stand, and probably use a verbal cue such as over, or right or left. Then I’d begin to place my hand on his side while pointing with the target stick and the verbal cue. At this point, my hand on his side means move over (just like a word from the DeafBlind alphabet). It may look like a push, but it’s not. I did not teach the behavior with a push. The touch came last. Raleigh was never pressured into a ‘move over’ behavior. So a push for Raleigh would be read more like Billy would read it. A push is simply a cue for both of them at this point. I don’t believe in their minds they’re thinking “I have to get away!” I think it would be more like, “Oh, that means move over. I can do that!

      The key here is his association with my touch. I taught him to move away from my hand by targeting first. It’s my hope and aim that this way he’ll associate my touch as something very specific to read, not a blind stimulus to move away from.

      So far it’s working really well starting him like this. So for every behavior that I’d normally teach using pressure and release, I use attraction and reward. I then teach the same cues that would be taught using pressure, but the big difference is his association with my touch. It never was anything for him to move away from.

      At age three Raleigh is surpassing my other horses in terms of focus and attentiveness. I think it’s because I’ve started him in a manner similar to teaching the DeafBlind alphabet. He’s literally always reading me. I’ve always got his attention, not out of fear, but out of desire. It really been an amazing experience.

      So for your wonder horse Billy, judging by his response, you two are on the same page, reading the same sentence. I think for horses, it all depends on their association with touch. Does touch mean something to move away from, out of fear or irritation, or is it part of their vocabulary? My theory is that pressure can be taught without fear or irritation by first teaching the behavior through targeting and attraction based methods. It is my hope that I can create a place where the horse will view touch as something to look forward to, an invitation, something to read, rather than something to simply move away from.


  2. this dialog is wonderful and the more we talk about it and share our experiances the more we will learn and grow hm? i saw the veggie-stick-lady on tv smack a horse in the face on tv the other day trying to get him to move to the right. it made me sick. it was totally unnecessary and she could have just as easily asked him another way. it does have to do with balance. and again, mustangs don’t like the MISUSE!!! of pressure. i can ask my most fractured boy to back up by simply holding my hands in front of his chest and wiggling my pointy fingers at him while softly saying “back please” and when he does it, i give him a big scritch on his forehead. this i feel, is gentle pressure that he agrees to and is happily rewarded for. are we too afraid to go back and undo some of the damage we have done to our four-legged friends? or would using these gentler methods mean our veggie- sticks and instant fix dvd’s wouldn’t sell as well? roxanne >>>——->

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