California Riding Magazine • January, 2010

Ask Charles Wilhelm
What is “natural” about using pressure? - Part 1

Question: I received some good comments and an interesting question from an individual who works with Mustangs up in the Shasta area. After reading my article on natural horsemanship, the use of pressure and release (California Riding Magazine, August, 2009), she wants to know what is “natural” about the natural part of horsemanship when pressure is used? She suggests that we look at letting go of the pressure and take more time working with each horse.

Answer: My reader agrees with taking the time to allow a horse to let you know when you can move on to the next step in training. When a horse is quiet and accepting of the lesson, we know we can go on to the next level. This approach works much better than pushing a horse and forcing it to accept something new before the previous lesson is solid and the horse is consistent in response to the cue. I really believe this and my reader does, too.

When my reader works with her Mustangs, she has a better response working without pressure or the standard equipment (halters, lead ropes). She works with the horses at liberty, using only her voice, eyes and hands. In my opinion, and I have worked with a lot of Mustangs and many types of domesticated horses, I believe all horses are individuals. All horses have the flight instinct, some more than others. I once had a Thoroughbred come in for training and that horse had an incredible flight instinct. When I first walked quietly into the 60-foot round pen with her, she began to race around at 90 miles an hour. There was no danger of the horse hurting herself but if I had brought in a lunge whip or other piece of equipment, the horse might have run through the rails and injured herself. The emotional level of each horse dictates how much pressure the horse can tolerate and must be evaluated early in the training.

I recently worked starting Mustangs at the Wild Horse and Burro Expo in Reno, NV. They had two Mustangs in separate round pens. One was a little red roan that had enough curiosity that when I walked up to the round pen, she actually came up to me. Once she started moving forward, I backed away and took the pressure off her and let her know that she was doing the right thing. Though I could reach through the rails and touch her head, had I been in the pen she would have struck out or tried to bite me. Her reaction to pressure was much more fight than flight. The other Mustang was a 2-year-old grey. When my focus was on the grey, just looking at her from about 75 feet away, she started snorting and moving away. She had a high flight instinct and reacted to the pressure by moving off.

When you work with horses you are always working with pressure and release as that is how a horse learns. We can see that dynamic at work when a new horse is introduced into a pasture or big corral. There is always a lead horse and that horse will apply as much pressure as needed to the new horse to exert his or her authority. This pressure will escalate from a look, swinging the hind quarters around onto a kick or a bite until the new horse moves off. When the new horse moves off, the pressure is released. The escalation of the pressure to change behavior is a natural behavior and we utilize that same concept in training.

When you look at a horse, you are exerting a form of pressure with your body language, just as the lead horse does. Some horses, such as the Thoroughbred and the Mustang I worked with up in Reno, have extreme reactions. I was working the Mustang in a 45-foot round pen and I’ll admit, I would have liked to have been in a 60-foot pen. She didn’t run into the fence and I allowed her to move around the round pen at whatever speed she wanted. If I had tried to block her and slow her, she would probably have run into the fence, tried to jump over the side of the pen, or she would have run over me. I stayed as quiet as possible, letting her continue to move around and in about 20 minutes I could see her drop from a frantic canter to a quiet canter to a trot. Once she was moving at a trot, with nothing in my hands, I went out ahead of her and suggested that she change directions.

More next time on natural horsemanship.

God Bless,

Charles Wilhelm
Remember It’s Never, Ever the Horse’s Fault