I think there is a lot of confusion in the horse world about when you should keep a steady pressure and wait for the horse versus escalating your pressure to get a response. I want to be very clear that I think both of these tactics are not only valid, but necessary to produce a good result.
In the past I have leaned towards always escalating pressure, which creates a responsive, sometimes reactive, horse. I think this is where a lot of trainers go wrong. They are so worried about not being respected and listened to that they get big so that the horse responds immediately.
There are a lot of benefits to this approach. A horse that is truly pushing through you needs you to get bigger and keep that boundary you are setting solid. However, you have to be careful that you aren’t letting your ego get in the way. Is the horse truly pushing through your aids, or is he confused or thinking about your response?
Rushing a thinking horse to make a decision teaches the horse that he doesn’t have time to think. This is what makes horses trained like this a little bit reactive and often on edge. They are rushed to do something and learn that they are better off reacting first and thinking later because they will get in trouble equally for a wrong response as no response. It becomes hard to establish relaxation because every time you make an ask the horse goes through a mini panic episode of rushing to an action.
I always say that the most important part of horse training is teaching the horse to think. Green horses are often pretty good at thinking, so the more accurate challenge is maintaining the horse’s ability to think through situations and respond appropriately. Horses that don’t think are horses that become dangerous when overfaced with too much pressure.
The solution to this problem is to instead hold your pressure steady. I think a lot of people cringe when I say this because they immediately assume they will end up with a dull, lazy, unresponsive, maybe even shut down, horse. This is indeed possible, but preventable. The trick is to know when you should escalate the pressure versus holding it steady.
The idea behind holding steady pressure is that you are asking for a specific response by adding pressure that encourages the horse to oblige. Then you wait and let the horse figure out what he needs to do in order to release the pressure. Holding pressure is providing the horse with time to think before responding. You are setting up a situation where the right response is easy and everything else is hard.
Steady pressure should be used the majority of the time. It develops a thinking horse that understands what you are asking and what you want. This allows the horse the freedom to make his own choices and accept your leadership without being forced into it.
The caveat is that you will have to increase your pressure if the horse stops thinking about the problem. You never want the horse to get comfortable enough with the pressure that he ignores it. To do this properly you will start with a very light pressure and increase it just until the horse notices it. Then wait for him to think about it. If at any point he tunes you out, increase the pressure and wait again when he is thinking. The horse will learn that pressure increases when he ignores it, so he shouldn’t do that. He will also learn that pressure holds steady until he figures out the correct response. This means the horse has little incentive to rush to an answer, unless he ignored you first. As he becomes more sensitive he learns to take you seriously and thinks about the pressure as soon as you apply a light pressure. The horse then problem solves his way out of the light pressure. This creates the thinking, feeling horse that we are striving for.
Holding pressure is of course much more difficult than just increasing the pressure until you get a response. You need to be able to identify when the horse is thinking and then have the patience to wait him out. Some clues that the horse is thinking would be that the horse is engaged in what you are asking, he is looking at you or the pressure you are applying, he is shifting his body weight to try different options, and he is moving his jaw (think lick and chew). In short, you have to be a thinking, feeling rider to create that thinking, feeling horse!
Try to play with holding pressure and escalating pressure this week. See when you can hold the pressure lightly without making your horse dull. When you feel like your horse is getting pretty dull, escalate the pressure and go back to holding the pressure. You will be amazed at the difference in your horse. Even just a few moments of holding pressure can lead to way more relaxation and suppleness as the horse mentally lets go of the tension caused by your escalating pressure.