What is Pressure?

Let’s jog on over to a natural horsemanship clinic.

(Before I begin, I have a disclaimer. The only reason I have disclaimer is when I tell people I predominately train without pressure, they tell me, with their fists clenched, that it’s impossible and they look like they want to punch me.)

Disclaimer: I am not against the use of pressure. I am against pressure being disguised as gentle, warm and fuzzy or a force-free alternative. I am against negative reinforcement being the only line of communication with a horse. I am advocating a balance of using attraction based methods and pressure based methods in the proportion that horses spend using each during their day. I am for using attraction-based methods to introduce pressure to a horse. Often when I train this way I don’t have to use pressure. I am for understanding the differences between using pressure and using attraction.

Okay, now let’s jog on over to a natural horsemanship clinic. The basic gist at one of these clinics is that horses communicate with pressure and that their deepest heart’s desire is the release of pressure, to be left alone. The conclusion is that the release of pressure is the reward. This theory has left me empty.

Pressure is defined by Merriam Webster online as:

  • The burden of physical or mental distress.
  • The constraint of circumstance.
  • The application of force to something by something else in direct contact with it.

Just for kicks, note in the third bullet: the application of force to something by something else in direct contact with it. Like the application of the friendly training stick (some are even named after vegetables) by the trainer in the round pen to the horse’s butt because it didn’t move fast enough. (I wonder if the horse finds the stick as palatable as the human.)

Nowhere to Run, Well, Except in Circles
Since the horse is either in a round pen or on a long rope, it has no place to go except in circles. There is no escape. This by the way is also a definition of force which is violence, compulsion, or constraint exerted upon or against a person or thing. The horse begins a journey of learned helplessness. Its only choice is to do what the trainer asks. In order to get the horse to move, the trainer usually waves the whacking stick or a rope. If the horse does not move it gets tapped or whacked. In other word it gets, the application of FORCE to something by something else in direct contact with it.

Soon the horse learns to anticipate the waving of the arm in connection with the application of the stick and figures its a good idea to move before the stick hits him. Then he associates a forward stomp of the handler’s foot with the waving of the arm and the whacking of the stick and moves with just a stomp. Then he associates a raising of an eyebrow with the stomp of the handler’s foot with the waving of the arm and the whacking of the stick and moves with just the raising of an eyebrow. By now the horse can be sent running with just an eyebrow. The handler didn’t even need to whisper. His eyebrow did all the talking.

The Great and Mighty Eyebrow
I view that eyebrow like a less-than-greater-than sign (>). Prior to the eyebrow, the handler uses very large demonstrative actions to force/pressure the horse into a behavior (the wide part of the sign) then gradually reduces the intensity of those behaviors to the subtlest of cues (the narrow point of the sign). This makes it appear as if he’s not doing much to get the horse moving.

If you’re in the audience watching this happen, you may hear “Wow, he can make the horse move with just an eyebrow!” No, actually it was the threat of force that made the horse move.

In this case the eyebrow represents the first part of the definition of pressure: the burden of physical or mental distress and the constraints of the circumstance (round pen, lunge line). “You better move when I raise my eyebrow or else! Oh, and there’s no escape.”

The horse remembers all too well what it felt like to be whacked and chased with the friendly vegetable stick. “Eyebrow equals whacking stick equals ouch equals I better move.” Therefore eyebrow equals move. In a horse’s mind, behind each small, subtle gesture is the threat of force.

Yankin’ and Shankin’
Here’s a handy little list I compiled with the help of my horses to show me when I was using pressure.

Waving a stick, rope, flag or a stick with a flag
Waving my arms

I quickly found everything I did, every single action with my horse, involved pressure. That bothered me. I don’t like to be pressured so why would I think my horse would like it either.

After reading a bit about BF Skinner’s work in Operant conditioning, I noticed that at the core of every technique, labeled as gentle, natural or whispering, was actually positive punishment (pressure) and negative reinforcement (release). A common example of this marriage is pulling on the reins creating pressure to stop, which is always paired with the release of pressure, when the horse stops. No big deal, except, in my mind, when the horse associates the pressure with pain.

Horses Don’t Cry
I think we can get away with training with pressure, and lots of it, simply because horses rarely cry out in pain or fear. In the wild this would advertise them as dinner to the local mountain lions. In a round pen for instance, this makes it really easy to pressure and force a horse way beyond their biological inclination to cry Uncle. We can measure physical stress with a stethoscope, but there’s no telling what the mental toll is until later.

Horses aren’t the only creatures that get pressured on a daily basis. I dare you to count how many TV or print ads sound something like this: “If you were to die to today, will your life insurance policy provide for you loved ones?” Or, “Every day people are losing their homes in foreclosure. Call us now for your free debt consolidation consultation.” Although we are not being physically whacked, we definitely are being mentally bombarded with all sorts of pressure and fear-based messages to get us to behave a certain way.

A Real Reward
So when we bust our bottoms to meet quota at work our reward is we get to keep our job. The threat of losing our job is the pressure, the keeping the job is the release. Wouldn’t be great if the reward were a real reward, like a bonus from the boss, or a few paid days off. To me, I’m more motivated by something that feels good, not something that feels bad.

Just because it’s second nature for us to live in a pressure and punishment based society, doesn’t make it right. Thankfully, no one is imposing that kind of society for my horses. I have the freedom to choose.

I can be that great boss that gives the kind of rewards that matter. I continually strive to find attraction based solutions for every behavior that traditionally requires pressure to achieve. It’s my secret hope that this will work for humans too.

– cw


29 thoughts on “Pressure

  1. wow you really said it well cheryl. it was hard for me to ‘undo’ my thinking when it came to teaching my mustangs to stand on the pedestal without any pressure, but what made it easier for me was to understand that pressure is a form of fear and, i am so tired of so much in our world being driven from and by fear. just think… if horses can truly learn to be with us and like it by learning a way that is devoid of pressure, threat or fear, can you imagine how that would feel??!! to both the horse and to us? keep up the good work and the writing. it’s a new and better way that really works with the spirit and soul of the horse hm? smiles, roxanne >>>——->

    • Roxanne! Thank you so much for your comments. I just wrote about you in a post called “Is My Damaged Horse Worth Keeping?” I mention your thoughts about emotionally fractured horses. I would LOVE for you to talk more about it!

  2. The more thought I put toward this – the more I realize how very little I have in my horse handling “toolbox” that isn’t some derivative of pressure. What a daunting task to reconsider almost every single method I use…. I have had horses since I was a small child (more years than I care to admit) and have spent the last half of those years questioning everything I thought I knew. Wow.
    Tell me how you’d handle this:
    My Billy is a cooperative and willing horse. However, he knows where the barn is, even after just a short time here – and would just as soon stay home as to go out on the treks that I desire. He’s getting better – as before he would look for a “loose rein” opportunity, and try to make a half-hearted run for it. Fortunately he’s controllable. We did a lot of stopping, resting, and eating treats on the way back to the barn – and for the most part the rushing has stopped.
    Our latest challenge is that of the route. For now, the farmers fields are unplanted – so I have the luxury of hundreds of acres to ride across. I can pick a destination, and point him toward it – but he is continually trying to “adjust the route” to orient us back toward home. I find it often degrades to more pulling on one side than I like – he ends up staying on “my” chosen route – but his body is all bent – wishing to try the homeward direction instead. If I give him slack in the reins, he veers off toward home, pronto. I solved that by just sending him in a loop – and then back onto the original course. I was pretty smug about figuring that out – because it works pretty well – but it really is a creepy way of just confusing him temporarily in order to get my way.
    I am hoping this resolves on it’s own? Our rides are NOT grueling – mostly at a walk – and hopefully are interesting to him, too. But before he came here he was a hard-working trail horse – and I get the feeling that conserving himself is very high on his list of survival priorities.
    How do I get him to subscribe to my sense of adventure?
    I also try mixing up the routine a bit – where we come home and do some arena work before untacking. So the end of the trek is not always the end of the ride.

    • Here’s my two cents worth…My mantra is, “Create a situation where the horse moves towards what it wants, not away from what it doesn’t want.”

      In thinking about his personal motivation, he wants to stay at the barn, his home, and doesn’t want to leave. Most horses have the really strong belief that ‘barn’ is the source of all good things. I wouldn’t doubt this, especially for Billy, a former trail horse used to the rugged hills of the wild west.

      So in his mind his motivation may sound something like this: “Moving toward the barn is good and moving away from the barn is not.”

      I would try to create a situation where ‘you’ are the source of all good things rather than the barn, and make leaving the barn the biggest party ever. So instead of reinforcing on the way home, do crazy amounts of reinforcement leaving the barn.

      Ideally you want to change his thoughts to: “Moving away from the barn is also good.”

      Here are a few ideas. If you have the time, ride him around at a time when you usually feed him. Bring his dinner with you and a collapsible bucket, or something easy to carry. I think it’s important to feed him in something he recognizes and associates with good things. Maybe prepare him in advance by feeding him in feed bag at feeding time.

      Then take whatever feeding container he’s used to with you on your ride. Feed him during your ride away from the barn. Maybe break it up into a couple feedings.

      This way he may associate leaving the barn as just as fun as staying at the barn.

      Another thing I do with my guys, especially my super-herd-bound Pasos that used to travel together, I’ll ride out something ridiculous like 20 yards. Reinforce like crazy, then turn around and go home. This way the horse was never given a chance to resist. I’ll keep extending the distance until they realize it’s ‘fun’ to leave home without their best bud.

      This is not easy, because it terms of motivation and association, the pull to reunite with their buddy is soooo incredibly strong, that I really have to work to be a better more exciting motivation. My goal is always to have them associate being away from home just as great or better than being home.

      In contrast, for Raleigh the Clyde, and DaVinci, who are not herd bound at all, they seem to really enjoy getting away. I think because they’ve formed the association that when they are away from the barn they get me (the source of all good things) to themselves. Whereas back at the barn there’s usually some sort of competition for my attention and the fiesty Pasos usually make sure they are front and center when I appear.

      So for Raleigh and DaVinci they may say: “Leaving home is great, I get all the attention, all the food and no one bites me!”

      So for Billy, I’d try to create certain places where you stop on your route routinely and reinforce with something he enjoys every time. So you in essence are creating a target for him. Perhaps find a stop that has some object he can touch like a mailbox or something stationary. This way, I’m hoping/predicting, that his thoughts will be: “I can’t wait to find that mailbox, because something good happens every time I touch it.” You could even link a series of route targets so he’s always looking forward to the next stop.

      In theory this is not something you would have to do forever, just long enough until he sees that it’s the coolest thing to be out, away from the barn, with you, the coolest person ever.

      I’d definitely reinforce much less on the way back, if at all, unless you have to, if he get’s too fast etc. Make going back not nearly as tasty as leaving. In this case, his reward could be simply getting to go forward. You could ask for half halts on the way home, and his reward is simply getting to move in the direction that he wants.

      These I know, are the times where it’s really tempting to use corrections, but I’ve found when a horse feels really passionately about something, corrections or punishment just serve to make tensions run too high, and because what they are ‘feeling’ (passion) overrides any normal rational thought process. It’s much more effective, in my mind, to find a motivation that they’re even more passionate about to override their present thought track.

      I’m not a fan of the saying, “Make the right choice easy and the wrong one difficult.” I’d much rather say, “Reward the right choice like crazy, so it never enters their mind to do the wrong thing.”

      So my short summary for a very long explanation, is:

      Make leaving the barn way more fun then coming back!

      Keep me posted!


  3. Pingback: Interpretations of “Pressure” /  enlightened horsemanship through touch

    • Thank you so much for your comment and your kind words. It seems that each day I learn more and more about what pressure means to a horse. The bonus is that it makes me even more aware of what pressure does to me and how it effects my thoughts, actions and even health.

      Through my interaction with the horses I’m learning to clearly identify when pressure feels bad and when it feels good. I see that your work involves equine massage and in that case pressure is good and promotes healing. (Your blog is fabulous and I will also link to yours!)

      My horse recovering from post traumatic stress appears to have gained the most confidence during his episode of itchy neck threadworms. Suddenly I became probably the first human in his life that made him feel good because I could relieve his discomfort, through touch and ‘good pressure’ reaching the itchy spots he couldn’t reach. From that moment on, he’s progressed more than I could have imagined. My theory is that I came valuable to him and I was the source of something that felt really good to him.

      The more I work with my herd I’m finding that most problems, or issues can be addressed by asking “How can I make you feel better?” When I do this my horses seem so willing to reciprocate leaving us both in a really wonderful place.


  4. Hi,

    Can you please shed some light on how you motivate your horse to become more energized in the work without any pressure?

    I’ve been clicker training my horse for just 1 yr, with a little blend of natural horsemanship. As regular method of natural horsemanship, I sometimes increase the pressure till I get the tiny response. I admit I’m wrong, especially after reading more articles from Karen P, from you, and watching a dvd called “poisoned cue”. I’m restarting my training plan, without the use of pressure.

    I’m currently teaching my horse the target with free shaping. My horse gets it quickly and would do it again and again so he gets the c/t. I hope I can teach him the “send away” with the target. I would like the finished behavior to be energetic, with enthusiam. In appearence, I’d like to see the “send away” in a fast trot or canter.

    Can you please share with me what steps you would take to have this behavior trained without any pressure? My horse would walk slowly to the target and touch it, then get the reward. I never see him pick up speed when going to the target.

    Thanks a lot.

    • Thanks for visiting and for your great question.

      In my experience sometimes the clicker/natural horsemanship combo is not really compatible. I’ve found that my horses get really confused if I’m the source of pressure (things that feel bad or irritating) and then the source of something that feels great. This concept became very evident when I was trying to teach my newly clicker savvy horse how to move out on a lunge line.

      I used all the fancy footwork and flags to make him move away from me. He shot me a look that I will never forget. I felt like he was saying, “Hold on a minute. I have two things to say. First, you teach me to target things, follow you and coming running to you when you call, which I think is great. Now you’re wanting to send me away, what gives? Why would I want to move away from you when I have so much fun standing next to you or running towards you?”

      He made me see that it was basically illogical from his perspective for me as the source of all good things to then be the source of pressure and irritation. It made me feel like I was a bipolar communicator that I first had to make him feel bad (pressure to send him away) then I got to make him feel good by relieving that pressure. Even if he received a click and a food reward as a result of a behavior that I got through pressure, I still made him feel bad before I could make him feel better. I had an identity crisis. How did he view me? As someone he could trust by having consistent good feeling communication or someone to fear by creating situations where he had to run away from me.

      So to answer your question of training ‘send away’ without pressure, I would first practice saying the cue in the positive. Instead of using the term “send away” I would say “move towards”. With my horse, he truly didn’t want to be sent away from me, I think he viewed it as a punishment. However, when I made ‘moving towards’ the object, such as a ball I’d thrown or my sponge-whip (a sponge duct taped on the end of a lunge whip) really exciting, the dynamic changed instantly. Suddenly he wasn’t upset from being sent away from me, he was totally engaged in moving toward the target, because chasing the target had a great pay-off. (I think horses think the click-treat is 1000 times more fantastic than a release of pressure)

      My mantra is: Create a situation where the horse moves towards what it wants rather than away from what it doesn’t want.

      To do do this, I spend a lot of time creating excitement around the target. I practice targeting everyday and make certain to use goodies that are super motivating so that the horse is super charged in anticipation to reach the target. Think of the cutting horses that gallop wildly to cut their intended target. To me it seems like such a natural thing for us to build into our horse’s vocabulary.

      If your horse is walking slowly to the target, I’d try changing his reward to something fantastic. I’d also ‘up’ my energy level. When my young Clyde was learning to fetch, I’d throw the ball and run a few steps with him and be very liberal and enthusiastic with my praise. Soon I could stand still and toss the ball and he trot enthusiastically toward the ball, pick it up and trot back to me. He’s also learning his verbal canter cue using attraction-based lunging where he’s targeting my ‘sponge whip’ on a large circle.

      Also too, you may want to spend time leading him using only a target stick. See if you can get a decent walk/trot/halt with him targeting a target stick the length of a driving or lunge whip held at your side. This helps the horse understand the idea of touching a target a variety of speeds. This is especially fun under saddle if you’re throwing a ball from it’s back. You’ll be amazed at the energy and enthusiasm the horse has to follow the ball.

      In short, the steps I’d take would be to 1) Create excitement around the target by having most excellent rewards associated with it. 2) Before practicing “moving away from mommy towards the exciting target” I work with him at my side teaching targeting at different speeds. Also too you could work on stationary targeting where he simply stands in one place touching the target to create solid contrast between moving and standing still. 3) Show lots of enthusiasm and support when your horse increases his speed to let him know that’s what you want.

      Again, thanks for such a great question. Please feel free to ask away (or towards!) if more questions arise.

      Keep me posted!

  5. Pingback: More On the Nature of Pressure | enlightened horsemanship through touch

    • Thanks a lot.

      May I ask you how many kinds of treat you use? I in general use 3 different treats to differentiate the effort offered. However, because of the high reinforcement freq, I’m not seeing any of those treats could create excitement for my horse to “go the extra miles”. I also tried other different treats and basically my horse does not tell me which one would make him “more agitated”. I thus have some hard time teaching him that the target could be the most exciting place to go to.

      Maybe our body language or our voice could help?

      • Right now, I usually use plain alfalfa pellets. In the beginning I used a variety of treats, sliced apple or carrot bits, or commercial treats that I could break up into tiny pieces, but I found after a short time it really was the sound of the click that they began working for, and not the food. Now I can use the most boring treats simply because they know the game and receive the ultimate reinforcement from being validated from performing a behavior I’ve requested. The treat becomes a bonus not necessarily their goal.

        Also too, I’ve found that it’s not necessarily the treat as it is the amount of treat. When I was teaching Juliet to lay down on cue, I rewarded her with a handful of pellets when she was on the ground. This seemed to make a lasting impression. When I ask for something that they have to work extra hard to do, they definitely get extra treats. I think though, it depends on the horse. Most of my herd prefers quantity over quality.

        With horses that I’ve seen that aren’t treat motivated, or wanting to go the extra miles as you’ve said, I think they just need more time and more repetition that the new paradigm is ‘something I do, earns a click and then something I want’. So many horses I’ve seen are accustomed to a fear or pressure based language that it takes time for them to adjust and learn the new language. Often when it seems they are slow to target, it just means the horse is still processing the new method of communication.

        In my experience, to get the kind of enthusiasm you’re looking for, the horse has to ‘look forward’ to what happens after it touches the target. I create the atmosphere of ‘looking forward’ by repetition and treating liberally and often with rewards your horse finds exciting. Repetition seems to help the process the new language and instill eager expectation.

        I definitely use my voice to encourage and body language to the extent where I’ll speed up my pace if I need them to catch up the target. What I like about attraction-based work is it’s basically like a point and shoot camera. I just point the target stick where I want the horse to go and then click when it goes there.

        Also to make the target more meaningful, for a period of time, only click for targeting. Don’t click for anything else, just use verbal praise for things you’d usually click for, like standing still or head down. If the horse sees that targeting earns him the most pay off then I can almost guarantee that will the the behavior he will want to recreate.

        After targeting becomes second nature to your horse, you can click only when the horse is energetically going after the target, don’t click if he’s poking along. I definitely would define what you want with a verbal cue. So if you want the horse to move toward the target for attraction-based lunging you could say ‘out’. If you want him to trot, begin to use the word ‘out’ and trot on cue. This will make things super clear.

        For now, what I would do is simply take it one step at a time and focus on getting the target ‘energized’ in his mind. I’d make a big happy fuss every his nose hits the target with treats, your voice and your body language. Take as much time as you need to get that target so it’s basically like a giant magnet to your horse. The power of that attractive ability will be IMHO no less than magical.

        I hope this helps. I think this is a very exciting time for you and your horse.

  6. Hi Cheryl,

    Thanks again for your detailed response. I’ll definetly try it.

    There’s another question that always puzzles me, regarding to the leading. Say, I take my horse for a walk. The horse is distracted by the lush grass and would like to enjoy the grass for a while. Normally I’ll just let it enjoy for couple of minutes and then give him some hint that we need to go. My horse would follow, 99%. However, there’re situations that I’m running out of time and can not wait for it to finish the eating. I have to tug tug tug and of course the horse sometimes refuses to follow. My experience tells me that C/T may or may not work. What would you do to deal with this, given that the time is so limited.



    • When you’re walking your horse are you using a target stick? I’m not a fan of tugging or any kind of pressure/release as means of communication so my aim is always to use an attraction-based method or cue as my first request. If my horse is not responding with a pressure-free method, then I may have to use a pressure-based tug to get its attention, (only if I’ve taught the response I want from pressure with attraction-based techniques first).

      When I find myself in a situation as you’ve described, ideally I like to have a target stick or a ball or some object for a horse to target. So instead of a tug, I would give the cue “touch” while holding out the object. This gives the horse the opportunity to decide to interact without being forced to by a tug.

      The other super helpful idea I’ve found when I’m in a situation where lush grass is competing with my directives, is to have taught my horse the ‘head down’ cue. Before I ever let my horse graze I will always, always, always give it the ‘head down’ cue so it registers in my horses mind that it was my idea not his. To me, food is food, whether it comes from my hand or the ground. My rules are no click, no food. If I’m walking my horses in hand, there’s absolutely no grazing unless they hear a click.

      This is also a great way to teach head down using lush grass as the reward. When your horse’s head is up, you can give the vocal cue ‘head down’ combined with a touch cue with your hand on his withers or on his poll, click the moment his head goes down, and the grass becomes the reward.

      From your description it just sounds like your horse needs more practice targeting. I’d practice with him in areas like his stall or a sandy paddock with no distractions or temptations. This will automatically make you the focus of his attention and the source of all good things. If you do this frequently, it’s been my experience that the horse’s response to target will become automatic even in the presence of a lush green temptation.

      I personally love the opportunity to see if I can become more interesting than grass. There’s been many occasions where I’ve been painting in public with Romeo and Juliet and our portable corral was placed on a juicy carpet of green. It was then I had to learn very quickly how to cause them to want to interact with me instead of the grass.

      I do this by clicking and treating liberally and often to distract them from the temptation. Also too, we practice targeting so much that it’s ingrained in their minds that the cue to touch seems to stimulate really good feelings….even stronger than how good it feels to eat grass.

      I’ve found that touch-click-treat almost always works. If it doesn’t it’s because I haven’t created a powerful enough good feeling surrounding the situation. It seems that every repetition of touch-click-treat gets stored in their brains as a deposit in their feel good account. The more deposits you make the more positive associations your horse will have when you ask for that behavior. It’s the strength of that association that I count on to get and keep my horse’s attention. The huge bonus with creating this type of account, is that it makes the use of pressure to get a behavior practically obsolete.

      Since your time my be limited during your walk, I’d be proactive and practice targeting and head down prior to your walk. As you probably know, you can teach head down by placing the target on the ground and asking for touch.

      As far as your horse refusing to follow, I do think that all horses should respond to the slightest tug on a the halter. It’s very helpful when a horse can follow your feel. I teach my horse to follow the feel of a tug, by holding out a target for the horse to touch. I then a establish the tug as cue as it is moving toward the target. This way the horse is learning to respond to pressure through attraction. I’ve found it makes a big difference in their response and attitude towards pressure.

      Keep me posted!

      • Thanks so much. I’ll practice more targeting.

        My horse does head lowering quite well. I’ll take your advice to ask him to do head lowering before eating the grass.

        Your “no click, no food” rule is wonderful. I’ll set it up.

        Thanks again.


  7. Hi Cheryl,

    Merry Christmas and happy new year. May you, your family, and your horsey friends a wonderful year ahead.

    I have some thoughts about using clicker in jumping. I hope to get your comments so things can become better thought through.

    As we all know, the sound of the clicker means “good job, good things are coming; stop what you’re doing, and come get your reward”. The “stop what you’re doing” part works very well in most of the cases. And it actually is a golden test to check if our horses are solidly conditioned, meaning it is ~100% clicker wise. And I personally had a contract with my horse that every click means a treat. This works beautifully in the flat work and ground lessons.

    However, when I’m schooling my horse over the fence, I have a 2nd thought on the “stop what you’re doing” because this “stop what you’re doing” actually makes things awkward as well as not so desirable during the jumping procedure. The horse might get hurt if it stops abruptly right after a big jump. The other thing is the “stop what you’re doing” hinders the training for “departure after the fence”.

    Some people suggest the method of targeting. I tried it but my feeling is the targeting does NOT provide the rider the chance to “click” the moment when the horse makes the attempt to jump, or click the moment when it jumps in a balanced manner. Rather, targeting teaches the horse to go “touch” the target with no regard to how the jump is executed. The priority is to touch the target, not how the jump is done. Of course you can say we can add on to the training to reward only the good jump. However, the sound of the click happens when the horse touches the target, not at the moment when the horse does a “good jump”. The horse may not “recall” what gets the click if the target it about 5 sec away from the jump. And if we click the moment of a nice jump, the horse stops dead, not moving to the target at all.

    I looked into the differences between the training of dog agility and horse jumping. In the dog’s case, once the dog does a good job and hears the click, it does NOT stop dead right on that spot. Instead, the dog is encouraged to move on (the trainer clicks and throws a toy for the dog to chase and enjoy it) or it keeps on moving and RUNNING TOWARD THE TRAINER for the treat. That, to me, is a huge difference between the training of dogs and horses (jump).

    As we put a rider on the horse’s back when schooling over the fence, and the rider is executing the clicker, this combination basically teaches the horse to “slam the brake” once it hears the click. There’s no way for the rider to do something similar like the dog agility training, by that I mean we click for the “good jump” and “encourage” the horse to keep moving toward something that is desirable for the horse. In dog’s case, that something desirable could be a toy, or could be the trainer that is some distance away. For horse, that something distantly away and desirable, which could “encourage the continuous movement” is not found yet. All we have is some bags full of treats located right on top of the horse’s back. There is no incentive for the horse to keep moving once it hears the click.

    So I got the idea that if we want to train the horse over the fence with clicker, we should first of all charge a new marker and that marker means the following :” good job, good things are coming, and keep moving to the SPECIAL PLACE to get your reward”.

    That SPECIAL PLACE could be in the corner of the arena where we feed our treat. And we could use a feeder with some colorful items for easy identification. Every time the horse does a good jump, we operate the marker and then the horse should keep moving, but this time moving toward the feeder, rather than slam the brake and wait for the rider to deliver the treats. By doing that, we’re mimicking the training of dog agility when the dog keeps the flow of the movement toward something rewarding distantly away.

    What do you think?


    • ” good job, good things are coming, and keep moving to the SPECIAL PLACE to get your reward.”

      very similar to rats, yes? The lab rat executes some sort of task and then when he hears the marker sound, he knows he’s done right. The food is not delivered to him. Rather, the sound means–go to where food is delivered and collect your food.

      If trained right, I think it could work fine for horses. Considerations I would think would be important:
      –the horse should not have to move too far to get the food.
      –food delivery will need to be carefully trained and will need to be kept consistent.

      What do you what the food getting behavior to look like? And then train that. For instance, should the horse walk or trot? Can the horse pick the pace? Is the food always in exactly the same location? I’d also want to makes sure the horse wasn’t rushing to go get the food.

      HP–are you familiar with Alexandra Kurland’s concept of loopy training? Or with the Premack principle? Looking at this issue from the perspective of premack really shows how this might work successfully.

      How I see it, is basically you would be teaching a new behavior and a new cue. Lets call it “get food.” The cue for get food would be your new marker signal. The “get food” cue/marker would mean the horse should execute the get food behavior—basically, stop what they are doing and go to the side of the arena, at which point you’ll drop a treat in the bucket there (or however else you choose to do it.)

      Teach the “get food” cue very solidly and with only +R. Teach it to the point where the horse loves it and wants to hear that cue. Then, you can use the premack principle and use your “get food” cue to reinforce other behavior.

      Horse jumps successfully (behavior 1) –> “get food” cue/behavior (behavior 2)
      Basically, since the horse wants to perform behavior 2, the behavior 2 can be used to reinforce behavior 1.

      Thanks for bringing this issue up, it’s an interesting one to consider. I rode a lot of English and did quite a bit of jumping growing up, but haven’t done any in the past several years (and since finding clicker training).


      • Thank you. Great reply. I truly value your thoughts.

        This makes me wonder about this new invention called the Nutri-bit.

        I think the scenario were discussing would be a perfect application….I’d love to hear what you think.


    • Super fantastic thoughts and question. Mary replied with some great ideas regarding Alexandra Kurland’s Loopy Training. You can read more about that here. Mary also mentioned the Premack Principal. Here’s a dog training video demonstrating the principal.

      Not that I have much experience training horses to jump, I do have experience teaching a horse to gait and stay in gait. The same dynamic occurs. When I get a perfect four beat, smooth collected cadence, I want to mark that exact moment without my horse stopping. So for example, when I would teach a canter depart, I’d ask, I’d get a stride, I’d click, my horse would stop to get the treat. I’d then ask for canter to depart, get two strides, click-treat, stop, eat. I’d repeat continuing to ask for more an more strides. At times it felt counter productive, when I’m trying to teach canter to keep stopping, but it proved to work really well, and it seemed to keep my horse in really close communication. For a young horse learning to canter, I never encountered a single buck or crow hop because he was too busy listening. When I’d get a fantastic canter stride, I’d mark it with a very enthusiastic verbal reinforcer and then a click. Now we can canter or gait consistently , without pausing because I’ve got my verbal cue that seems to be motivation enough to keep him going. And I can also offer extra encouragement verbally when I need to mark a brilliant moment.

      Here’s what I’ve done that seems to be working. I train using two methods. One way, I work without treats, using a verbal cue and the excitement in my voice as the reward. The other is with the sound of the click and treats, and the click always means food. When I’m teaching something like gaiting, I’ll start out teaching it in teeny, tiny increments using the click-treat to shape the behavior. Once I think my horse understands what I want and what it feels like to gait, I’ll then begin shifting to verbal reinforcements, no click, but a definite verbal marking of the exact moment of what I want.

      It’s fascinating to me to see how my horse’s respond to the excitement in my voice. I believe it’s often more motivating than the click. So while I’m riding if I feel my horse breaking into a perfect gait, I’ll say something along the lines of “Wonderful, wonderful, you’ve got it, keep going…there ya go…” and then after it’s held the gait with the collection I was looking for, I’ll stop and pat his neck, or click-treat depending on what I think my horse is looking for from me.

      I definitely think you could establish a SPECIAL PLACE, but I don’t know if that is necessary. I think if you stay in verbal communication with your horse through, especially highlighting (with excitement in your voice) his brilliant moments you may not need the special place.

      My only concern with establishing a special place, is that I could see how the horse may form serious attachments to that special place and it could become a distraction, unless you created a variety of special places. It may create a ‘barn sour’ type behavior, where the location of where they receive the treats/good feelings is where they want to be, not going over the jumps.

      I know with my guys when I’m teaching them to climb on pedestals, they get a lot of reinforcement. They then conclude that the pedestal is “where I go for reinforcement”. This is very evident if I put a green rider on one of my horses. If the horse decides that the rider is not directing them appropriately it’ll simply wander over and step up on to a pedestal. Even to this day, if I’m not paying attention to one of the horses, they’ll inevitably go stand on a pedestal and stare (pout?) until I notice them.

      In my experience to “encourage the continuous movement” is not about the treats, but making your verbal praise meaningful. I have no doubt that my horse’s totally read my mind and can see my thoughts and are very tuned into to my vocal inflections. Even if I’m carrying on a conversation with a friend near my horses and my voice raises in excitement, Romeo always whinnies in response and usually mimicking my same tone.

      In my experience, my work with my horses is taking a fascinating turn. I’m finding they are much more sophisticated communicators than I am. Here’s a fun little mind game. I’ll try to phrase it without sounding too silly. Say I were to put a saddle on my husband and ride him around an arena, how would I communicate to him what I wanted him to do? I’d explain it to him. Since our words share the same symbolic representation we’re usually on the same page. With my horses I try to do something similar by sending them very clear visual pictures of what I want, along with a verbal or tonal reinforcement.

      It’s been working really well. Often I don’t have to come up with complicated training strategies, because the horses already can read my intention. It’s making me become much more ‘mindful’ making certain not to think one thing and then ask for another.

      Because of what I’m finding, I have a feeling the art and science of operant conditioning may be expanding to include quantum physics.

      I think too the difference between dog agility and horse agility training, is that the dog trainers encourage the dogs to think and decide during the course, because they are not on their backs. I think since riders are physically on their horse’s back, we omit the part about training the horse to think, because why should we, we’re on their backs directing them.

      The little agility type work I’ve done with my horses in comparison to my dogs, so far it seems my horse have learned to ‘stay’ and fetch must faster than my dogs did. I think the more we allow horses to think and find satisfaction in accomplishing a challenging behavior, we’ll find that training dogs and horses will be very similar, if not the same….

      I think it’s such an exciting time. Meanwhile, I hope I was able to offer some food for thought.

      Happy Holidays

      • Cheryl,

        I loved this reply.

        “It may create a ‘barn sour’ type behavior, where the location of where they receive the treats/good feelings is where they want to be, not going over the jumps.”

        This is an excellent point!

        Something related— I think it’s easy when we are dispensing treats, for the horse to always want to stay with the person. I’ve started recently teaching Sebastian to go away from me, a prep for lunging and ground driving. We are making slow, but steady progress on this. However, it was hard at first because he was so use to working up close to me.

        I think good training is all about balance—being able to train fast and slow, have the horse work near you and away from you, be able to ask for high energy and calmer energy.

        The comparisons to dog agility are interesting. I wish there was more communication between dog trainers and horse trainers and bird trainers and dolphin trainers and whoever else trains animals. I think it would make all of us better trainers!

        By the way, have you seen any of the videos from this guy? I think you’d like them!



      • Hi Mary,
        Thanks for the link. Yes, I’ve seen his videos. Fantastic.

        I’ve experimented with my guys in our little ‘agility’ field that has the tire pedestals, a teeter toter and a heavy duty 3 ft spool previous used for coiling telephone wire. Just by having them follow my ‘spunge whip’, (lunge whip with a sponge on the end) they’ll trot over the teeter totter, jump up and spin on their tires, and DaVinci loves to rear up on to his spool. Now my quest is to see if I can get them to complete a routine without following a target, more like dog agility.

        So far, the best way I’ve found for teaching them to move away from me, is to have them learn to fetch. This is how I started Raleigh ground driving, I just threw the ball and he walked off after it. Just like you explained, it’s really hard because the horse loves being and working so close to you. You, after all are the source of all good things.

        I found that if he was reinforced a lot for any movement away from me it helped tremendously. I find my spunge whip invaluable for this. I can click/treat immediately for stepping away. I use the verbal cue of ‘out’ so they know to step out and away. What makes me so happy is that I’m not chasing him away or using pressure/force/aversives to push him out. So hopefully in my horse’s mind it’s moving toward something because it feels good at the same time it’s moving away from me. My hope is to create a horse that looks forward to moving away because of it’s initial first impression of how good it felt to move away by following an object.

        It’s funny you should mention the balance of how you train. My work with DaVinci has always been super slow, methodical and soothing. Now, I’m in the process of teaching him that I can also be spastic and fast. I’ll actually run up to him, or run around him, clicking and treating to show him that ‘just because someone is moving fast, it doesn’t mean anything’. It’s really helping him. The neighbors think I’m insane, but DaVinci doesn’t and that’s what counts!

        Judging from his actions to waving arms, or running, it’s clear he’s had some sort of round pen abuse. I’ve been looking forward to his readiness for me to be able to work with him with higher energy without triggering his panic button.

        Perhaps we should act on your wish. It just seems the bird, dog, and marine mammal trainers are light years ahead with their positive reinforcement training techniques. I think it would be fabulous to form a positive reinforcement training community that was not animal specific, but rather included all creatures.

        Although each animal has it’s own species specific behaviors and innate reactions,(ie prey, predator) I think their similarities far outweigh the differences with the common ground that all animals just want to feel good. I think R+ training is the ticket. I totally think if this information could be shared it would not only make us all better trainers, but seriously enrich the lives of all the four-leggeds around us.

        Did you ever watch the cartoon Super Friends with their Justice League of America? Well maybe, there could be some league of R+ trainers that unite their powers to help animals and their humans everywhere…. “Wonder twin powers activate! Shape of a happy horse!” (I totally dated myself on that one)

        Up, up and away,

  8. Hi Cheryl,

    I understand your reasons for expressing your thoughts on this. I will say not all Natural Horsmanship clinicians are created equal. I know some outstanding horseman who are not on RFD TV nor have any books or wares for sale. I hope one day you have the opportunity to see THESE horsemen, similar to Tom Dorrance. Not the ones who run horses in the confines of a round pen under the guise of joining up. No, the ones who consider the spirit of the horse, who work on helping a horse by offering something from the inside of them to the inside of the horse.

    But when looking at pressure, I think to myself what about the pressure horses use amongst themselves? It is definitely pressure and it can even be positive punishment! But is MEANINGFUL to the horse. Does this make it a bad thing? No. I think you could say confusion lack of clarity, lack of consistency could be considered abuse to a horse.

    Leslie Desmond has a saying of using “feel and release”. I like the thinking behind that.

    Happy New Year!
    Kathy Baker
    Follow Your Bliss Farm
    Midway TN
    “For lack of a better word, I’ve taken to calling this the horse’s spirit. The older I get, the more I have come to believe that this aspect of the horse is the most important and the most overlooked.” Tom Dorrance

    • Hi Kathy,
      To me, to truly honor the spirit within a horse is to find out what makes the horse feel good. The difficulties I had with using pressure as a means of communication with my horse is that it usually involved me being the source of something that made the horse feel bad. Even if it was mildly irritating pressure accompanied with a clear release, I felt that the horse could view me as being inconsistent. I was both the source of making the horse feel bad and good. Yes, horses in herds share this dynamic, but the proportion of time they spend using pressure, I believe is misinterpreted.

      From what I’ve observed, watching my herd of four turned out 24/7, they have two very different ways being a horse. One way is who they are and what motivates them as they mill about independently. The other is how they relate to each other. When milling independently they seem to be moving toward what feels good like, more grass, more water, more shade, more buddy back scratching. This happens roughly 95-98% of the time. The other 2-5% of the time I’ll see them moving away from a herd member that’s lunging at another because it wants the bigger pile of hay. This is definitely moving away from something that feels bad, and a clear example of pressure and release.

      To say that horses use pressure amongst themselves is correct, but in my experience the amount of time they spend using pressure is minimal. Yes, it’s meaningful when they use it, but, my theory is that it is more meaningful to a horse to appeal to how they spend the bulk of their day-in pursuit of something that feels good. When a horse is pursing something that feels good, their Seeking System (the looking forward to something good happening emotion) is activated. This according, to Dr. Jaak Panksepp and Dr. Temple Grandin, is the emotion of anticipation, it’s the fuel to accomplish goals. Here’s a quicky explanation:

      In my experience, what is meaningful to my horses is the opportunity to feel good, the opportunity to engage their Seeking System. When I trained using pressure, however slight, I felt like I was not being as clear as I could be.

      Now, through the use of targets, I can teach everything I used to teach with pressure, with attraction-based techniques. Instead of applying gentle pressure at the poll, to teach head down, I use a target first. When the horse targets the object with it’s head down, I’ll give it a verbal cue. Then, only after the horse understands head down, I’ll lay my hand on it’s poll and then give a touch cue. In this scenario, my horse has not moved away from an aversive (pressure on the poll) it has moved toward something that felt good, touching the target, hearing a click and receiving a food reward.

      I do teach my horses about pressure, because I do think it’s vital that horses can follow my feel. The distinction is that I want my feel to always be associated with something that feels good. This is why I want my horse’s first association with pressure to be explained in an attraction-based setting, as in teaching head down.

      I think if the world of NH could expand beyond “horses work for the release” we would see more trainers like you mention and fewer horses that have deep fear based issues from misuse of pressure. From what I’ve seen there are trainers that are extremely skilled with their use of pressure, but for the average person, it takes years to get to that place. What I’ve also seen is that attraction-based methods are user friendly and take much less time to understand and implement but feel very foreign because it’s opposite of what our culture teaches. It’s my hope that by understanding both pressure and attraction-based methods, horses and humans can quickly, effectively and compassionately find a place where they both feel good.

      I love the name of your farm. May we begin our New Year by doing just that…..follow your bliss.

      Best wishes,
      PS Please feel free to add names of trainers along with Dorrance and Desmond that you think would be helpful for folks to hear about. Thanks!

    • Thank you for your thoughts on this. I feel like there is so much to learn about how a horse views pressure. Getting the idea out in the open to chat about, to share experiences, I think will help us all see things from the horse’s point of view a little more clearly. I keep feeling too, that we’re all gearing up for a really wonderful new era of (enlightened) horsemanship. Have you by chance seen the new movie Avatar? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it if you have….


  9. Best wishes,
    PS Please feel free to add names of trainers along with Dorrance and Desmond that you think would be helpful for folks to hear about. Thanks!

    Hi Cheryl,

    Well my all time favorite is Harry Whitney (who will be in NE Tenn for 6-8 weeks of intensive weeklong adult horsemanship camps). Harry plainly states that he is not interested in fancy moves, dressage, flying changes, sliding stops, he is mainly interested in how a horse feels on the inside first and foremost. And he truly has a gift to be able to identify what a horse is feeling, an amazing gift. So for me, he is a mentor. If you can hear what Harry says, and see what he sees, you will never view horses the same. His main objective when working with any horse is to help that horse feel good. (Does that sound like a force/pressure based approach or a positive approach?) You won’t find Harry on RFD-TV or see videos for sale by him, he is one you have to seek out. Generally when that happens it is because the student is ready.

    Mark Rashid is another who considers the inside of a horse. I think Brent Graef is a gifted clinician as well. These are some that I know personally. Mark is going to be in Anthony, Florida in Feb, he is worth going to see.

    Please say hello to Sam for me, and happy trails to you and yours!


    • Hi Kathy,
      Thanks for the adding the info on Harry Whitney, Mark Rashid, and Brent Graef. You write of Harry Whitney’s gift to be able to identify what a horse is feeling and be able to make it feel good. This I believe is a gift that is innate in all of us and that gift (IMHO) becomes very honed I feel the more clearly we understand the use of pressure and the use of attraction.

      I feel this gift has remained dormant in all of us because we don’t have many examples available to show us what a happy horse looks like. Nor has our society encouraged us to be happy humans. I’ve found with my herd it became really easy to see such a change in their level of feeling good when I began seeing the contrast between what they looked like when I used pressure and what they looked like when I used pure attraction.

      The part that got confusing for me, is yes, the horse feels good after the release, but I personally didn’t like how it felt to have to use pressure/force/firm touch, however slight to communicate what I wanted. I do realize that some horses, especially many Quarter horses, don’t have much of a problem with pressure. For many NH clinicians Quarter Horses are their horse of choice.

      Fortunately, or unfortunately the most of the horses I’ve worked with are of Spanish descent or abused, which has given them a very high sensitivity to their environment. Since these horses wear their heart on their sleeves, there’s no mistaking when they are happy and when they are not. I’ve yet to make them unhappy when working with them in an attraction-based place, but can easily create tension if I even think about using pressure with them.

      With all that being said, I’m truly open to the possibility that true horsemanship may not have anything to do with pressure or attraction but simply two beings existing together in a mutual state of feeling good.


  10. I’m an embryonic rider who recently started in the Parelli system. I’m not riding yet, only ground work with a horse trained in Parelli. I’m also an ex-social worker with a degree in psychology, experienced in using operant conditioning in both dogs and mentally disabled people. What I see in Parelli, at least in my trainer, is the desire to be humane, yet jump to higher levels of pressure too fast – shaking the lead, snapping the stick string- nothing particularly painful to the horse, but definitely communicating anger at non-compliance. The horse I’m using is 23 years old and has never had a true relationship with anyone, been a trail and leased horse all his life. My goal is try to bring a sparkle to his eye (though I don’t see sparkle in any horses’ eyes as yet. Are they all slightly clinically depressed?). I am also surreptiousily teaching him basic word commands. (since when did humans decide that hearing horses cannot learn verbal/auditory cues?) Anyway, I certainly appreciate the efforts of the Parellis, and am truely in need and enjoy the ground work im doing. But, I think they are missing valid training modalities that could enhance the partnership quest.

    • Many thanks for your super observant comment! In my experience the ‘sparkle’ arrives the moment the horse becomes operant and is allowed the opportunity to ‘choose’ instead of being ‘made’ to perform a behavior. It’s so easy to make a horse do something through pressure/release methods but I think it has that depressing effect that you’ve noticed. This, I think, is because the horse has become an object to move (back up, walk forward etc) rather than a sentient being that would like to be part of the conversation.

      Allowing the horse the opportunity to move toward something (attracting) as in targeting a target stick into a horse trailer, rather than being tapped on the hind end to get into the trailer is one example of what I would call a two-way conversation. Much of the yankin’ and shankin’ although not painful, to me is a one-way conversation of force. Similarly when I’m in a conversation where someone else is doing all the talking and when I respond their gaze wanders off into the distance, my countenance deadens too. I think perhaps ‘the look’ may be one of being invalidated. The horse knows that it is, perhaps, being objectified and not recognized for the intelligent and often more interactive being than the family dog. (Interesting side note…I’ve found that my horses learn sooo much faster than my dogs and have an exponentially longer attention span)

      When folks would visit my horses to see them paint, fetch, lay down on cue etc, the response was always, “I didn’t know horses liked to play.”
      I’ve found when communicating via operant conditioning suddenly a completely different horse emerges. My gut feeling is that the horse finally feels validated, like its existence matters because it becomes part of a desirable two-way conversation. This to me is the real partnership.

      The behaviors I’ve taught and request using R+ are always so much stronger than anything that occurs through negative reinforcement (pressure/release). Any learning situation is stressful enough but add pressure/fear/intimidation to the scenario I think that’s another reason for the clinically depressed look, the horse basically checks out. Fortunately, a few well timed click/treat sessions can bring about a vivid resurrection.

      I look forward to hearing more of your experiences. No doubt the horses that you encounter will LOVE you because you already see them.

      I’m so excited for you!

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