Sunday, June 2, 2013

Under Pressure

As I sit here mentally preparing myself to go meet a young horse I may be bringing home soon, I started to think about what I want in a horse. With Foxie, I have a mixture of mind-boggling stubbornness and fantastic moments - when she's good, she's GOOD and when she's bad, she's unfathomable. Meeting our dressage instructor, Karen Lee, for the first time in a long time, Karen pointed out that it took, at the time, over twenty pounds of pressure to get her to yield to the bit. While she has fantastic ground manners and is a quick learner, she sometimes pushes back - and sometimes more than "sometimes". 

Pressure is a pretty important thing - on the ground, it helps you move and maneuver your horse safely, and build an understanding that helps to keep you safe when handling your horse. In the saddle, giving to pressure gives you a horse who gives to the bit, and can be soft and through with their body - moving in the way that is best for their backs and staying controllable under saddle. 

So pressure is my number one test for this new horse. Ground work, while many people find it kind of boring, is the best place in my opinion to lay the basics down in a safe and controlled environment.

Ground work:
1. Allows you to create and train reactions to pressure
2. Helps build a bond between you and your horse
3. Helps you lay down your expectations for your horse, and 
4. Gives you basics to go back to when ever a training issue arises. 

Giving to pressure means that your horse moves towards the source of the pressure to seek relief from it, not fighting that pressure - it's a pretty spectacular thing for a flight animal to even be willing to do. 

Read more under the cut to find out more about pressure and release training!

-Your horse balks at loading into an unfamiliar trailer. If you have successfully taught your horse to trust you and give to pressure, you are able to use pressure-and-release to load the horse rather than having him shoot backwards and refuse to step up onto the trailer. 
- You own a very tall horse, and aren't so tall yourself. If you train pressure and release training, you can make dropping his head to be bridled a positive experience for your horse, and for yourself! Nobody likes to try to bridle a giraffe! This skill can also be used for teaching your horse to drop his head for things like clipping a bridle path, clipping ears, haltering, fly masking, and even brushing the face. 

Pressure and release training is possibly the most important part of your horse handling arsenal. Using pressure and release, you can make your life, and the lives of the people who handle your horse, much, much easier. Just remember to be kind, consistent and patient-  some horse will be much more resistant to this type of training than others, and always be aware of your body and stay out of danger zones (and wear a helmet, even on the ground!). 

Where do you start with this training?
Well, I like to start with the basics I use every day: backing, leading, "coming around" and moving situationally in the barn. I'll lay down the basics of those and leave further concepts to another post. 

When practicing backing with your horse, I usually start on the ground with my usual halter and lead. I don't usually put on a special training halter simply because I want my horse to react in the "clothes" she wears every day. I would work in a quiet area, isolated from other horses and rider traffic if your horse is calm on his own. The fewer distractions, the better. If your horse backs nicely and lightly off of pressure back and slightly down (towards his body/neck) you're good to go. Many horse owners need to use a lot of force, or "pop" on the halter as the horse leans into the force. 

My secret? I use a joint pressure of steady, low-to-medium pressure on the nose and a hand or two fingers pressing in one of the two spots on the chest indicated below:

These spots are the soft hollows between the wind pipe and the muscles of the shoulders - don't press on the windpipe, and make sure to GIVE when you get the desired behavior - even if it's just a shift of weight, reward by removing the pressure, praise (vocal, pat, treats - up to you!) before asking again. 

When leading, I like my horse to walk beside me, at my pace, without barging ahead, falling behind or trying to graze. Fishtailing, prancing or other nuttiness isn't allowed! When working on leading, I try to make it a game: red light, green light! This gives you the opportunity to give "Woah!" meaning again, as some horses start to ignore it! Woah, back up, walk forward, woah when they barge in front of you, make them sit, walk on, woah, etc. etc. Use the nose pressure you established teaching backing to make your horse think you'll be asking for a backwards step - get them to shift their weight back, and then continue on. If your horse is particularly distract-able, or belligerently bargey, I sometimes use a stud chain, with a regular lead clipped as well, as a training tool.

How to properly use a stud chain 

Having slack in the line is very important with a chain, and thus I like to have the second lead there - give them a chance to be good rather than treating them like a criminal. With Foxie, the minute a chain goes on, she gets very still and intensely respectful - a product of her race track beginnings - and thus we only use it occasionally, or as a reminder in a high-stress situation like a vet visit or walk on the show grounds. Using a chain, make SURE you are releasing, or giving, when you get your desired behavior. Many people don't train leading, preferring to haul the horse forward or be half-dragged to where they are going. 

Another tip is to talk to the stable workers, if you board, about what you're doing with your training. They can give you some tips, and then everyone is handling the horse consistently, making the lessons stick better. 

Coming Around
This is the motion I ask for when I put a horse into a stall or cross-tie bay and ask them to turn themselves around and come back to me face first. Stable workers will love you, because they don't have to go in after your horse - risking a kick - to get their halter off. Practice in your main work areas, preferably at a low traffic time so there are fewer distractions and you aren't endangering others (or your horse) with your training. 

* Use caution if you have a horse who strikes or is defensive in his stall - and perhaps enlist a knowledgeable trainer or stable hand to help you problem solve.

Most horses barge into their stalls because dinner awaits them - and they're hungry! Establish control and obedience with stopping, backing and other ground work first, then ask your horse to go into their stall. Be prepared to stand your ground and hold on to your lead rope if they pull! I try to be consistent and always ask my horse to come around - be it in the turn out or in the stall, or in the cross ties. Some horses will be very offended they don't get to go eat/play/etc immediately, but this skill makes the horse safer for everyone to handle. 

General Handling
General handling for me includes moving away from my hands either with the front or hind end separately (and I like teaching turn on the haunches and forehand from the ground for this reason) or moving the whole body sideways. I try to choose push spots on the horse that make sense - by the girth for the whole body, shoulder for moving the front end and the hollow of the haunches to move the hind - these are all sensitive areas that make for a nice fast reaction. Some people use a dressage or in hand whip to train skills like these, as sometimes it's nice to have a "long arm" so you can stay at the shoulder, and I often include voice cues like "OVER" to increase the learning value - then when I need to move a horse sideways, I can use the vocal cue under saddle to help make the connection. 

Pressure and Release

This is the most important part of this type of training - for it to stay positive, you have to give, and decide what is "good enough" to deserve praise that will further the lesson. You want backing and you get a weight shift in the right direction? I'd praise and ask again! 

Trying to force a horse to do something - i.e. leaning on the lead rope trying to drag them doesn't work - they will sit back against the force. Instead, try a pulsing pressure that gives when something positive happens - and especially in trailer loading type situations, don't let a stalemate begin. Keep the feet moving - that keeps the brain spinning, not shutting down! 

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