California Riding Magazine • February, 2010

Ask Charles Wilhelm
What is “natural” about using pressure? - Part 2

Question: This is a follow-up to the question and comments I received from a reader who works with Mustangs up in the Shasta area (see article in California Riding Magazine, January, 2010). The question relates to natural horsemanship and the use of pressure and release.

Answer - Part II: Two things you can take to the bank: one—pressure and release does work with all horses and, two—if you control a horse’s feet, you control the mind. My reader suggested that you can do this out in the pasture and I agree. It will take more time but you can do it. I have worked in a round pen or large corral and taught horses to turn and face me and have put a halter on for the first time. It is not the size of the enclosure but what we do. Once you step into a round pen or a pasture with a horse as sensitive as a Mustang, and some are so sensitive to sound that they can hear you a mile away, you are exerting a form of pressure. I have worked with domestic horses that panicked at the sound of a plastic bag being rattled. I worked with one horse whose reaction was so strong that I had to start at the far end of the arena which is about 80 feet long. I work with a plastic bag to sack out a horse to teach the horse to deal with the pressure of different, scary objects and the unexpected. Sacking a horse out with a plastic bag and a tarp makes a horse much more safe on the trail where the unexpected can always occur.

There has to be a point in time when a horse that will be ridden must submit to equipment. With the grey Mustang I worked up in Reno, on the first day I could take hold of the lead rope attached to her halter. By the second session I could teach her to lunge and stop her feet using the lead rope and halter. It took some time and it took some trust on her part but the escalation of pressure was in increments. In other words, I started with her moving away from me when I looked at her from 75 feet away. By the end of the first session I could reach the lead rope and start teaching her to yield to the pressure of something around her face. By the end of the second session I could drag a tarp around her and yes, she exhibited some flight instinct but she did not bolt.

I’ve had Mustangs come into clinics and the only person who has ever worked with the horse was the owner. They had developed a relationship and a level of trust. However, when something else came along outside that realm of trust, like me or another person, the horse reverted to the Mustang flight instinct.

I’ve had many horses in training considered problems—I don’t necessarily think of them as problems but as horses who have never had their emotional levels dealt with. Some horses do really well in the arena but when they get out on the trail and something unexpected happens they bolt or buck. The unexpected object or occurrence causes more pressure than the horse had previously dealt with and the horse can’t handle it. The owner and the horse are not safe because the horse has not had the opportunity to learn to accept more pressure. It must start with increments.

About 11 years ago a woman came in for an evaluation of her horse and while she was waiting for me to finish with someone else, she took her horse into the round pen. There was a tarp lying on the ground and she put it over the horse. She asked me if the horse was supposed to be scared of the tarp and I laughed and told her that people pay me a lot of money to do that. Here, the flight instinct in the horse was very low and it took a lot of pressure to get this horse to move its feet. This is the opposite of the Mustangs and domestic horses that we have discussed with very high flight instincts.

I think everyone who successfully works with horses has an approach that works for them. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way other than the use of too much pressure, cruelty or abuse. If you are getting results, then stay with it. However, we also need to think about who we are training the horse for. If I am training a horse for me to ride, I may not do as much with ground manners or de-spooking. If I am training a horse for a client, I must consider the client’s skill level. I always think about what the client needs to be able to ride that horse, not just what I would need. I have a limited amount of time and the lessons must be solid. Also, we tend to train our horses to respond only to us and not to other humans. Most of my clients are women and sometimes they have children who will run up to the horses. If the horses haven’t had to learn to deal with this kind of pressure, a child could get hurt. The same is true with dogs. We have several dogs on the property, including two Jack Russell Terriers, and the horses learn to deal with them.

Keep these things in mind as you work with your horse. Just remember that all horses are different and they have different levels of the flight instinct. We need to work with each horse’s individual personality.

God Bless,

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