The Number One Way To Ruin Your Training is
Training Without Release
We’ve all heard the adage that every moment you are training your horse. We all agree with a nod of the head but what does this really mean? It means, that any moment that you release pressure you are telling the horse that they just did what you wanted. Every moment that you are with your horse, you are communicating what you want and what you don’t want. If you are not aware of what you are doing, you could be telling your horse inadvertently to do the wrong thing.
There are two important ways to signal to a horse that they are doing what you want. You can reward them or you can relieve the pressure on them.
Release by definition is to grant freedom; to free from confinement. When we talk of release of pressure, we mean stop asking for anything from your horse for a moment. Direct or implied. That moment can be anywhere from 1–2 seconds to 1–2 minutes or longer. The release can be small like a give of rein pressure or a cessation of leg pressure or large one like free walk on long rein or halting and letting them relax and look around.
Rewards are the addition of something the horse finds to be enjoyable in some way in response to something they did. This can be a food reward strategically timed, quitting and going back to the barn or even as tiny as a small scratching on their favorite spot. The combination of both release and reward is the fastest and strongest way to train. Knowledge of both of these can help you train everything from stopping a horse from pawing in the isle to performing 15+ steps of piaffe.
Key Principles Of Release
You have to teach a horse what pressure means. Horses don’t naturally always move away from pressure. They didn’t come with a manual where brakes mean stop and gas means go. You have to teach them what the aids mean. Remember if your horse isn’t responding correctly to your aid, your horse either doesn’t understand or has been taught to ignore it.
You have to release immediately after your horse responds. How is a horse to know what you want if you don’t give him clear signals. A release or a reward immediately following the correct response is the only way to communicate. Also remember, when first teaching something, you have to reward the try or a close approximation of the behavior or movement. For instance, if your horse has never backed up to pressure on the halter, you wouldn’t expect him to take several steps back on the first attempt. He may just take a ½ step back or even just shift his weight back.
For example, let’s talk about teaching a horse to move away form the leg in a yeild. In correct training, you are signalling to the horse by adding pressure with one leg to signal them to move away from that leg and step in the opposite direction. How does the horse know when he did the right movement? If he steps into your leg, you increase the pressure. This way you are signally to your horse, “nope that wasn’t right”. If he moves forward, you keep the leg on him but ask him to slow with your seat and legs. Again that tells him, “Nope that wasn’t quite it either”. Maybe your horse backs up, then you really need to increase the leg pressure and add some pressure with the other leg. Finally, your horse takes a step sideways. RELEASE the leg asking. STOP ASKING. This is how your horse knows he did it correctly. To really seal the deal, now give your horse a pat or a treat. Give your horse a break. Let him stand there for a moment. Don’t immediately jump into training it again or into the next lesson.
If you keep asking, after the horse has yielded, you are actually not teaching him to yield anymore, you are teaching him to ignore your requests. Once a horse understand how to move sideways off the pressure of your leg then you can use pressure and release in small increments to build distance or duration. What I mean is after the horse moves off your leg sideways and you want the horse to take 2 steps, you release after 1 step but immediately ask again. Building on this sequence, you can teach the horse to leg yield across the ring. But it starts with clear communication on the first step.
You build duration or frequency later. First your horse has to understand what you mean, then you look for more steps, longer hold, or increased enthusiasm. For example, let’s say you are teaching your horse canter. At first you just want the horse to get the idea. You release and reward often when they offer it to your cue. As time goes on, you want them to keep cantering. In more time, you have them circling. In more time, collecting and extending. In even more time, pirouetting and flying changes. However, you wouldn’t expect a horse new to canter to perform complicated movements. Remember this in baby lessons like walking, backing up, or loading on a trailer. It’s not that you settle for less. It’s that you slowly build. You can only build by releasing and rewarding often. As the horse becomes comfortable with the movement you can always ask for a little bit more. The key is a little bit. Christine Betz has a great saying. She says “look for 1% improvement a day because that will be 30% improvement in a month.” That’s a lot.
Heads up. This is more than one way to ruin your training…