It is common for accomplished horse trainers, when teaching or explaining their methods, to use the terms “pressure and release” or, more excessively, “reward and punishment” to explain how to obtain various behaviors desired.
I prefer to say “comfort and discomfort.”
The horse, a prey species unequipped with horns or tusks of so many other prey species, in order to stay alive in the habitat in which it evolved — open grasslands – had to be exceptionally perceptive.
Because the horse’s only dependable defense is flight it must know as early as possible that danger is near. In the wild, that danger was primarily the proximity of carnivores. These carnivores were mostly of the canine or feline species, capable of high-speed attacks. Therefore, the sooner a wild horse moves away from perceived danger, the better its chances for survival.
Always living in bands in the wild, a flight response in one horse in a band of horses precipitates a similar response in its companions. This too, requires exceptional perceptivity.
That is the reason that the horse has such acute senses. It has the same senses that we do: vision, hearing, smell, taste and feel (the tactile sense) but, each of those five senses are, in the horse, far more efficient than ours.
Horses can see in darkness far better than we can. They can pick up motion so slight as to be invisible to us. Their hearing is exceptionally sharp, and they can locate the source of sound with their moveable ears. Their sense of smell is excellent. Ours is comparably weak. Taste? Watch a horse separate the tasty parts of a mouthful of forage from the less tasty parts or avoid the granules of medication you mixed with its grain.
Feel? A fly lands on the horse’s hair. Not its skin but the hair. The horse feels it and responds.
So, considering all this why have we humans, ever since we domesticated the horse, assumed that it is necessary to REWARD them for desirable behavior by giving them sugar, or mints, or carrots, or by pounding (“patting”) their necks? Do horses pound each other to express approval? No! But we do!
Comfort does not require patting or pounding. A soft stroke means more to a horse.
Discomfort does not require spurs with long needle sharp points, or severe whipping, or painful jaw-breaking bits.
Very slight pressure of the rein against the neck, or on the tongue by the bit, or by the rider’s thigh, or by a slight change on the rider’s seat position is immediately detected by the horse.
Release of such slight pressure makes the horse more comfortable.
The horse feels the faint proprioceptive balance changes the rider’s body makes if the rider simply looks in a different direction.
This is what differentiates great horseman from mediocre horsemen.
Their signals to the horse create slight discomfort. The desired response by the horse, however slight, gives the horse immediate comfort.
With repetition, the result is a predictable, immediate, consistent response. This is what horse training is all about.
© Spalding Laboratories. All Rights Reserved.