Pressure, Then Reward

Learn about positive reinforcement and reward training for your horse with top trainer John Lyons

A woman cut her bacon in half before she put it into a big frying pan. She was asked why she did it that way. Did the middles cook differently if the pieces were shorter?

She shrugged. “That’s how my mother did it.”

Her mother gave exactly the same response. “That’s how my mother did it.”

Elderly Grandma had a simple answer as to why she had cut the bacon before cooking it. “So the pieces would fit. I only had a small frying pan.”

Horsemen do this a lot. Something that worked for a particular horse or situation gets passed down through generations without question. Maybe later horses and trainers find it to be a more difficult method than is actually necessary, but by golly, we stick to our guns and insist, “That’s the right way to do it!”

Some training methods and riding techniques have continued this way for literally thousands of years. We don’t often ask “Why?” when we go to someone who knows more about horses or more about a particular skill than we do. We pay them to teach us. It only makes sense that we listen to what they say.

But listening and learning from someone we respect doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask why something is done. Good teachers or trainers will actually encourage questions so they can be sure you really understand what you’re doing and how it works. That’s why an open, inquisitive mind helps you, the trainer you might be working with, and ultimately your horse. For now, though, we’re concentrating on things you and your horse can do together.

Horsemanship Simplified
It doesn’t really matter if you ride western, English, bareback, sidesaddle, are driving in a cart, or are just leading your horse in from pasture. Whether your goal is to win at reining’s Snaffle Bit Futurity or Grand Prix Dressage, to make the Top Ten in Western Pleasure at Quarter Horse Congress, or to have a pleasant amble down a dirt road, good horsemanship is good horsemanship. Period.

When Reiner Klimke, one of the finest dressage riders in modern history, had an opportunity to watch reining for the first time he was fascinated and called his students over to see how well balanced and freely moving the horses were. While John Lyons was in Germany doing demonstrations, he watched German Olympic riders and came home with some good exercises for the rest of us.

Different people and disciplines may use different words, gestures, aids, techniques, or tack, but the basic methods of communicating with horses are universal, straightforward, and surprisingly simple. The principles that produce a safe, relaxed, and happy horse working willingly with a safe, relaxed, and happy rider are the same no matter what kind of saddle you have on the horse’s back, what job or discipline you are asking your horse to do, or what level you are asking him to achieve.

This is good, because it’s probably safe to say that most folks haven’t gotten involved with horses to make their lives more difficult or to make them feel more uncoordinated, incapable, or stressed. But that can happen both to us and our horses when we make things harder than they have to be, especially when we’re trying something new.

Anything that’s complicated for us to learn is also harder for the horse. If something is simpler for us, it’s also simpler for the horse. It’s not that either of us can’t learn a more complicated system of horsemanship or that a more complicated system won’t work, but if we can get safe, effective results with an easier, faster method that is less aggravating for us and for the horse, let’s do it!

Rather than make things more difficult, we’re going to make horse training less complicated and easier for us and for the horse. This will bring results faster and is just plain more fun for everyone concerned.

Riding As Driving
When we’re trying something new, it helps to visualize something more familiar. So picture this: Riding a horse is actually a lot like driving a car. Both require steering, speed control, and an alert driver/rider who knows how to navigate the road.

When we ride, however, we’re often taught to use three steering wheels-our reins, our seat, and our legs-to ask our horses to change directions. Say you want to turn to the right. You either neck rein or use a direct rein. You shift your seat/weight to a different spot in the saddle and you use leg pressure at the shoulder, girth, or barrel of the horse.

Sometimes the horse turns, sometimes he doesn’t. If the reins don’t work, the seat and legs probably won’t either, so you tend to pull harder with the reins, kick harder with your legs, and/or throw your weight more obviously to get a bigger or faster response. It seems logical. More effort on our part should produce more result from the horse. Only it doesn’t. What we’re really doing is unbalancing the horse and burning up the cues we thought we had.

Think about a bad Hollywood western with an actor in the saddle who’s trying to make a dramatic move for the camera, but doesn’t actually know how to ride. Trying for a big response, he pulls both reins too far and too hard to the right, making the poor horse throw his head up, tip it to the left, and shift his weight to the wrong side while he gapes his mouth open to try to escape the pain caused by the clueless rider’s heavy hands and way too much bit leverage. The actor also throws his body around and flails with his heels as the horse scrambles for balance. This may create a lot of dust for a dramatic camera shot, but never, ever produces a quick, neat, and efficient turn.

If you use your seat or legs for directional control, you’re adding more steering wheels. The more “steering wheels” you use, the less effective any one of them is. One steering wheel-the reins-is all you really need to think about as long as you use it in a simple manner that makes sense to the horse.

The reins actually do double duty and provide both the brakes and steering. This doesn’t mean you haul away on the bit like a longshoreman pulling a boat to the dock when you want to slow, stop, or change direction with your horse. Rein cues can and should become so subtle that they are invisible to anyone watching-a secret message between you and your horse.

Your legs are the gas pedal and you’re only going to use one gas pedal because that’s all you need. The horse only has to learn one cue: Pressure from both legs means “go.” You’re telling the horse to move his feet or to move his feet faster. He may be going forward. He may be turning. He may be backing up. He may be going sideways or at an angle. If you want him to do any of those things faster, you cue him with your legs.

Pulling harder on the reins isn’t going to turn your horse faster or make him back up faster because-when you drive-the steering wheel never becomes the gas pedal.

If your horse is standing still, you may try to pick up on the steering wheel (the reins) to get the horse to turn around. But since the steering wheel doesn’t actually move the car, that doesn’t work if you don’t step on the gas pedal (cue the feet to move). Just as you can’t turn a car by turning the wheel if it is sitting in “park,” if you’re doing a reining spin or simply turning your horse to the side, the actual movement comes from the gas pedal (your legs.) The reins just provide direction.

Your seat, planted in the middle of the saddle, is just like your seat behind the steering wheel. It keeps you in a safe, comfortable, well-balanced spot and interferes as little as possible with whatever it is you’re asking the horse to do. This can be a lot harder than it sounds and takes years to perfect, but is a lot easier to do if you’re relaxed and not trying to make your body do ten different things while you’re trying to stay with the horse’s motion.

When you start to turn the horse with the reins, will your head, shoulders, seat, and legs move a little and will those movements eventually do a lot to cue the horse without your being obvious about the reins? Sure. You’re going to use that fact a lot in your training, but you don’t have to concentrate on all of that at once, especially at the beginning.

A Simple Formula
You can use a simple formula whenever you work with your horse: Pressure, Spot, Direction, and Reward.

Pressure: No matter what age your horse is or what level of training, pressure is just pressure. If the horse is loose in a round pen, the pressure might be as simple as you walking toward him. It could be an even pressure on the lead rope or it could be half an ounce of weight on the rein.

It is a myth that the horse cares about the exact angle or direction of this pressure. Consider that if you pull on someone’s hair, they don’t care what direction you’re pulling from or in, they just want you to stop-which is what you’re going to do the instant the horse responds the way you want him to.

Spot: If you control one little spot at a time, you control the whole horse. This spot isn’t an imaginary concept, it’s a physical place that you can see easily and touch with your index finger that is going to make it easier for you to focus on what needs to move or change.

First you’re going to get the spot to move. Then you’ll get it to move consistently. Then you’ll get it to move as the result of ever-lighter cues.

To put a visible spot on your horse, you can use a dab of antiseptic cream from your first aid kit, a round price sticker from the home/school/office aisle of your grocery store, or maybe your horse has a handy marking or a whorl of hair just where you need to concentrate. A spot can also be the concho on your saddle, the horn, a saddle string. It can be a button on your shirt, your belt buckle, or your knee. Use whatever makes it easier for you to see progress in movement.

When you’re in the saddle, you can’t see the horse’s feet because his shoulders and hips are in the way. You can, however, see a concho on your saddle. If that concho moves to the left, so have the horse’s feet. If your back cinch’s D-ring moves to the right, so has your horse’s hindquarters.

From the moment you pick up your rein, it’s connected to that spot. If you want your horse to back up, focus on one of your shirt buttons. You pick up your rein and apply the lightest pressure necessary to get the movement. If the button on your shirt backs up, your horse has gone with it. If your spot is on the horn of your saddle and that spot has moved next to the gate, so have you and so has the rest of the horse.

We’ll work on different spots, but realize that one little spot is all you have to worry about at any given time.

Direction: Whether that spot is on us, on the saddle, or on the horse, there are only six directions it can go: up, down, forward, back, left, and right. You’ll give your leg or rein cue with as little pressure and movement as is necessary to get the response. The important thing is to know what spot you want to move and where you want it to move.

Reward: How does the spot “know” what you want it to do? There’s nothing magic-it’s a specific cue that you’ll teach your horse means “go forward,” “lower your head,” “back up,” or any of the hundreds of other things you ask them to do. Horses don’t like pressure. To avoid it, they’ll try different actions or motions. The instant your horse moves the spot you’re focusing on in the direction you want, immediately release the pressure.

That release of pressure is a way of saying “Yes! That’s it!” when the horse-probably accidentally at first-begins to do what you want him to. Don’t wait for the movement to be completed. It takes time for the entire horse to respond. The instant you even think that spot is moving in the right direction, release.

Let’s suppose you want your horse to move sideways, as in a sidepass. You’ll focus on a spot on your horse’s side, like a saddle concho or screw on the seat. You pick up on the rein with a steady pressure. If you release as soon as you see your spot move, he has moved his shoulder, which means his feet are about to move. By the time his feet move, he has already had his “yes” release. The next time you ask, his response will be faster and lighter.

Watch and Observe

Whenever you get a response from your horse, watch what else happens. Say you want your spot on the top of your horse’s tail to back up. When it does, lots of other things happen as well. The tail goes back, which means the feet are backing up. If the feet are backing up, they’re obviously not going forward, which may be an important tool if you want your horse to slow down, stop, or stand still. The horse’s neck and back are rounding more, which is building muscle. He’s also shifting his weight to his hindquarters, shortening the distance from his head to his tail, and beginning to collect, which will make him more powerful and more maneuverable at the same time.

A New Recipe
Your job as teacher for your horse becomes easier if what you teach is easier. Grandma’s method of cooking bacon worked for her, but she probably never intended for later generations to follow what she did without thinking. Just because we have been taught one way of doing things doesn’t mean that’s the best answer for every horse or every rider. It doesn’t mean that we can’t learn a better or different way to do something.

Try something simpler and see if it works for you and your horse.

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