One of the things I have been thinking about is: How much pressure is too much? I have always thought that my horses could take the pressure I was giving them. But how did I really know? I first found out that I was using too much pressure about two months ago.
I was working on teaching Jackson to sit down on some hay bales. I was using a cordeo and trying my best to be very light. At one point, I used a little more pressure than I had been using (though still pretty light) and Jackson stopped listening and trying. I hadn’t been angry or using a lot of physical force, but Jackson showed me that it was too much.
I had never experienced this before. I had never seen Jackson just stop trying for me. Or had I? Had my horse shown me this before and I just missed it? I have now concluded that this is the case. I had always used more pressure, rather than less, and I missed the signals my horse was giving me. Because I decided to not force him while teaching the sit, he was able to decide if he didn’t want to do something, therefore showing me something new.
As soon as I stopped “forcing” my horse to do things, my horse was then able to show me when I had overdone it. I used to be obsessed with getting my horse to do what I asked, as soon as I asked it. However, this leaves no room for what the horse feels. Now I ask my horses to do things, and if they don’t do them right away, in most cases, I just let it go. I might move onto something else or call it quits.
I just had another example of moving too fast with too much pressure, even though the pressure wasn’t physical. Sadeem had recently learned to rear on cue. He learned this by watching Jackson and I do it. I would cue Sadeem by holding the whip up and telling him “up.” At first he really seemed to enjoy it. Then a couple of days later, he wouldn’t even try to rear for me. If I kept asking, he would look away and if I still asked for the rear, he would walk away. He almost always came back right away.
This made me stop and think. I hadn’t physically touched him, but he made it very clear that whatever I was doing was too much. I was a bit of a slow learner in this instance, so every time he came back to me, I would ask again. (Duh!) And you know what? Every time he would walk away.
Then the other day when I was working with Sadeem, I asked him for the rear and he immediately looked away. I thought, “Aha!” I finally realized that part of the problem was that he wasn’t confident enough to face me and look at me. I decided to drop working on the rear and get him happy with facing me.
So I did what any trick trainer would do. I asked him to give me a kiss. I had never worked on this trick before, but I thought I would give it a try. He quickly learned that if he touched my face with his nose, he would get a treat and some petting. I asked for the rear again and he immediately tried to rear! He became confident and I remembered to use less pressure.
I would never have seen how uncomfortable Sadeem was if he hadn’t been at liberty and able to turn and walk away. I would never have noticed that I was using too much pressure with Jackson, if I hadn’t given him the opportunity to not listen.
By allowing my horses to make some decisions on their own, I am better able to learn from them. I am less anxious if don’t perform right away or do exactly what I want. I realize that my horses can show me how much pressure is too much, but only if they have the freedom to show me.