My Foundation Training Principles are: 1. Pressure and Release, 2. Timing, 3. Position, 4. Patience and 5. Consistency. Using these Principles requires a full understanding of how horses learn, our role as a teacher and how to develop good communication between you and your horse. So let’s examine these more fully.
Pressure and Release:
If you watch horses together in a pasture you will see many examples of pressure and release. The dominant horse will seek to move the more submissive pasture mate by first exerting an almost invisible energy (pressure) which will then turn into aggressive body language and may be followed by physical contact in the form of a bite or kick if the submissive horse is not properly responsive. The dominant horse will immediately decrease the pressure (release) when the other horse has responded properly. This is how horses learn to deal with each other from birth; energy, body language and physical contact are all forms of pressure. The release comes when they comply. In Halter Breaking, we use all these same methods to communicate with our horse and show them what we want. We increase from energy, to body language to physical contact as needed to get the horse to move his feet – both in the desired direction and at the desired pace – and then eliminate that pressure as they comply to let them know they’ve given us what we have asked for. By determining that the release is the vital element in getting our horse to respond, we bring up the second Foundation Principle, Timing.
A key point to mention at this time is that horses do not learn from the application of pressure, they learn from the timing of the release of pressure. That is one of the single most important lessons any horseperson can ever learn. If we want, for instance, a horse to move his hip away from us, we apply pressure at that location and increase the intensity until the horse starts to move away. At that exact moment, not before or after, we offer release by withdrawing the pressure and allow the horse to understand he has complied with our demand. If you release the pressure a second too early or late, then the message will be difficult for the horse to understand. It is our job to communicate clearly what we are asking and to give immediate reward when they begin to comply. You reward the “try” at first, not the successful completion. Reward the horse with release at the moment they start to comply; a single step at first, then two, then more. Give them the chance to take baby steps in learning. Apply only the necessary pressure to get a response, and give them full release of pressure as they respond. In order to be able to apply the correct amount of pressure, and to be able to properly and immediately release that pressure, we must draw on the third Foundation Principle, Position.
Our body position is crucial to educating the horse of our intentions and allowing him to comply with our demands. We can assist a horse in understanding us by changing our body position even the slightest amount. As you are teaching your horse to lunge in the round pen, a single step to his hip is a signal (pressure) that communicates your desire for him to pick up speed, just as stepping more in front of him would cause him to feel blocked and slow or turn away from you. We need to be responsible for our body position and the effect that has on how our horse responds to us. If we wish for our horse to decrease speed while lunging, but are chasing his tail, then we are sending the wrong message. Horses respond to body language with each other, as they don’t have verbal communication to rely on as we do. Recognizing what we are communicating to our horse through our body position is crucial to getting the response we ask for.
An often overlooked and unmentioned aspect of Foundation Training your horse is having patience with him. We need to always minimize our expectations so we can avoid frustration in our horse and ourselves. Accept slow progress, and appreciate the smallest improvement and effort your horse offers you. In Halter Breaking and Foundation Training your horse, always remember that “slow is fast.” Go slow, be patient, and proceed step by step – rewarding even the most minimal “try” your horse gives you. If you try to rush your horse through the process you’ll only lengthen the time you spend getting him to understand you, and could possibly cause serious issues that will take even longer to repair. Just remember the adage, “Ask a little, get a lot.”
The consistent use of cues, whether they are physical or verbal, are very important in teaching your horse. An example would be teaching your horse to stop while you’re lunging him. Horses don’t understand our language, so merely saying “stop” or “whoa” by itself will be ineffective. If, however, you couple the “whoa” with stepping back from him (withdrawing pressure), then he will begin to understand what you are asking. If you use a different word each time, or if you pair that word with different body positions, then all meaning will be lost. Choose a method of communicating a demand, then stick to that. Don’t use your stopping word, “whoa” for instance, as a way to get your horse just to slow down. Use a separate word such as “easy” to slow your house instead. You want a command to have a single meaning in the horse’s mind, so don’t confuse him by giving a command that has several meanings. In order for your horse to progress through his training you need to have good communication, and good communication comes from consistent, reliable use of commands and cues. If you were trying to learn a new language, but the meanings of the words you used changed arbitrarily and without notice, you’d find it difficult, if not impossible, to ever understand it.
Once you have a full understanding of the Foundation Training Principles, you can teach your horse through Pressure and Release, which allows you to get him to complete his Halter Breaking and perform the tasks outlined in my first two segments: leading, sending, lunging, loading, moving away from pressure, standing tied and having his feet lifted in preparation for the farrier. These are the building blocks of everything you will ever ask of the horse for the remainder of his life. Let’s quickly review these tasks for a moment.
Your horse should lead alongside and just behind you with a slack lead rope. He should travel at the pace you set, changing as you change and stopping with you, not after you do, while keeping a safe distance that you determine. He should not pull back or run up on top of you, and his attention should fully be on you. He should lead through, around and over any obstacles you present, putting his trust and confidence in you as his leader.
A horse should be easily directed to position himself where you want him, moving his feet in the direction and manner you choose. Sending is a basic function that you will use every time you interact with your horse, whether it’s working in the round pen, trailer loading, or just sending him up to the tie rail. He needs to give off of the pressure willingly and take direction consistently.
When judging if your horse lunges properly, look for the following behaviors. Your horse should be easily sent out from your space and should travel in the direction and at the speed demanded by you. He should have his attention on you, respond immediately to any commands, transition in speed up or down as indicated, and stop quickly when asked. He should have his body and neck bent in the direction of travel, and be on the correct lead at a lope. He should change direction as requested, allow your approach on either side when stopped, and turn to face you after stopping. He should be able to do all of these things while free of any lead rope or restraint.
Every horse needs to be able to be quickly and easily loaded in a trailer for transport. They should follow you into, or preferably, be able to be sent into a trailer of any size or configuration. They should stand tied in the trailer calmly and patiently, and unload without hurry or panic.
Moving away from pressure
It is not a natural response for a horse to feel a physical touch and move away from it. In fact, the opposite is true. Horses initially will lean into pressure, so if you push them they will push back. They have to be taught to move off of the pressure, and this is a key element in everything they will be taught from this point forward. A well broke horse that responds to leg cues while being ridden is simply moving off of pressure the same as a green colt that’s being moved around at the tie rail. Everything we teach them has its start in them readily giving to the pressure of our touch, so spend as much time as needed to get this right. Remember, it’s when you release the pressure that tells the horse when they’ve responded correctly.
Patience is a virtue in horses. We need them to stand tied for hours at a time, and to do so quietly and patiently without protest. It’s never a bad idea to tie your horse out for a few hours, even if you don’t have time to work him. It has many benefits in their training, and makes them more quiet and complacent. They should not pull back while tied, should be easily moved around while tied, and should give to any pressure from tension on the halter. You should also be able to approach your tied horse from either side without him becoming nervous or unsettled.
Having the horses feet lifted
There are many reasons why you will need to lift your horse’s feet, including cleaning, health inspection and trimming/shoeing. He should give his foot with a slight touch, allow it to be held any amount of time needed, and do so without moving away, kicking or otherwise protesting. A consistent lifting of your horse’s feet will pay big dividends and make your farrier very happy. This is also another good tool to teach your horse that you are in command and that you can, and will, touch him when and where you wish. Please make it a daily part of his training.
I cannot stress how important these initial Foundation Training experiences are to the horse and to you as his trainer. You are laying the foundation which you will build everything else on, so it’s important to take your time and do it well. You are teaching your horse how to learn, as well as what to learn. You are setting the tone for all his interactions with humans for the rest of his days. These Principles are the basic building blocks of every maneuver, every task, every goal you will attempt with this animal.
I would like to end this final segment with a reminder that not all horses who need this training are young colts. There are a great many older horses with little to no training, poor training or problem causing training out there that can benefit from this Foundation Training course. Often times people will buy a horse that is 5, 8 or even 15 years old that has large holes in its training, or problem behaviors, and would benefit from being taken back to basics and having a new foundation laid. Any horse you own or buy should be subjected to the tests given here for these young horses, and any indication that there is a lack of training should be addressed and rectified immediately.
Once again, remember that if you feel you’re not getting the response you desire from your horse, or you are unsure or feel unsafe working with your horse, please seek the assistance of a qualified Horse Trainer, such as myself or another reputable practitioner.
Please look for my next article entitled, “So you want to buy a horse?” and until then, have a blessed day!
Heartland Ranch Horse Training and Lessons
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