When did using pressure to train horses get such a bad rap? 

I feel like I am living in a society where hard work, discomfort, stress and pressure are to be avoided at all costs…?

Remember this graph? This is an important graph…


Yerkes-Dodson's Law describes how stress can enhance learning performance to a point and then inhibit it.

Yerkes-Dodson’s Law describes how stress can enhance learning performance to a point and then inhibit it.


Why is this important? Because too little stress results in bad performance and too much stress also results in bad performance… but the key is:

the RIGHT amount of STRESS equals PERFORMANCE! 

That’s why “stepping outside of your comfort zone” works… but why people who do it successfully don’t “try and eat an elephant in 1 sitting”… they take incremental steps…

But that is beside the point…

Why is it taboo to mention utilising high pressures in horse training?

I was teaching a lesson with a student the other day. After doing some +R (positive reinforcement) training her horse had started to nuzzle her pockets and push on her trying to find treats. During one of our conversations I mentioned that she needed to stop that behaviour, she asked me how, I said “You need to push her head away every time she nuzzles/pushes you”, which she did but only in a very gentle way, hence the mare continued to repeat the behaviour…

I said “You need to be tougher, you need to be more aversive… you need to use a higher pressure… you need to smack her…”

Insert her sideways look… and me thinking “O boy, here we go…”


So this is what I said: “Think about it like this… Horse A lays its ears back at Horse B and nothing happens. What happens next generally is Horse A bites or kicks Horse B, and when Horse B does what Horse A wants, Horse A stops biting or kicking and life is good. Horses escalate and use high pressure all the time. Horses use pressure to communicate”.

And also we taught her the ‘head away’ game so her horse learnt that she only got her +R when her head was ‘away’. IF this had of been trained in the beginning we would have minimised the need to use +P (positive punishment – a whack on the nose) to fix the unwanted nuzzling/pushing behaviour…

This is me starting +R training with one of my horses – this is the ‘Head Away’ game

Pressure is neither bad nor good. Pressure is a form of communication tool. High pressures can be useful and also detrimental, low pressures can be useful and also detrimental. There is this common misconception that light pressures are ‘good’ yet I know horses that are very ‘light’ (the human uses low grade pressures) and yet exhibit stress and confusion when their human works with them.

Its not the USE of pressure that is actually the problem.

It is not the USE of pressure that causes stress and discomfort. 

It is the inconsistent use of pressure that is the problem…

Remember horses use VERY high pressures at times to communicate with each other. In a group of horses there is some very serious shit that goes down from time to time, but you don’t see routine anxiety and stress in group horse interactions… why? Because they are consistent in their use of pressure… they don’t just randomly kick or bite each other…

As a side note horses have a more linear social hierarchy, its not actually the pyramid system that we are most commonly taught…


A horses social hierarchy does not look like this…



It does however look more like this… Horses learn their personal position relative to the other horses in the herd. If for instance you refer to the image and imagine horses not people… the red horse knows its relationship between himself and the green horse and himself and the blue horse. But the red horse doesn’t know the relationship between the green and blue horse…


But that is an aside…

Back to the point….

So I think what happened is this… people got educated and started to recognise stress in horse training… at the same time humans went through a ‘peace and love’ movement and at the same time as that horses went from being a tool to being a companion, and you don’t routinely use force or pressure to communicate with your human friends… So we erroneously we figured that it would/(should?) be the same when we communicated with our horsey friends… and that also turned into a very lucrative market…

Soo instead of saying:

  • Horses use vocalisation, body language and pressure to communicate. Being that we are humans and not horses a vocalisation and body language based system of communication has its limitations. However we can clearly regulate the application of pressure. At time’s, high pressure may need to be used into order to motivate the horse to respond (insert a memory of one horse biting or kicking another horse here – that is a horse using pressure in order to motive a response…). However when using pressure it must be remembered that the use of inconsistent pressure and the use of continued high pressure in horse training should be avoided as this will induce stress in horses. As the horse progresses through our training system and learns our chosen communication style the level of pressures routinely used should decrease in parallel as the horse has an excellent memory and will learn a clear pressure based system rapidly.

Bit of a mouthful and not soooo sexy is it??

So we started to say stuff like this:

  • The Parelli method of natural horsemanship enables horse lovers at all levels and disciplines to achieve:
    • Success without force
    • Partnership without dominance
    • Teamwork without fear
    • Willingness without intimidation
    • Harmony without coercion

    “People realize this is what they’ve been looking for in all their relationships,” comments Pat Parelli. “It’s balanced with love, language and leadership in equal doses.

    “The program and the horse give them a living model so they can practice and become fluent in their abilities in all relationships, not just horse relationships.”

    “It’s about more than just the horse,” echoes Linda. “It really dips into the personal development side of things. You learn about yourself, you learn about communication, about leadership, about truthfulness, about consequence and responsibility.

    “You learn about love and imagination. The horse becomes the animal that tells you the truth about yourself in all these categories.” http://www.parelli.com/parelli-program.html

  • Bent Branderup’s motto “Two spirits who want to do what two bodies can” includes that he is not only training the horse physically, but also mentally. The thoughtful use of gymnastic excersises should build up the horse and keep it healthy. The Academic Art of Riding begins with the awareness of the horse as a worthy being, a partner in life. The basic is to gather the knowledge and the use of the different aids, to build up a communication between horse and man. The aim is to get physically and mentally so close to the horse so that the spectator gets the impression of a dancing couple. The rider has to take responsibility for the horse that the horse has enough trust in his rider to accept the guidance. https://www.bentbranderuptrainer.com/bent-branderup/academic-art-of-riding/


Now THAT… THAT sounds nice and sexy doesn’t it? Lots of peace and love happening there…

But I wonder how much cold hard truth…?