The Release training method focuses on horse trainers giving to the horse rather than the age old apply pressure methods. We are all horse trainers whether we are conscious of it or not. If we are within influence distance of a horse (and that includes in the back yard having a meat BBQ or yelling at the dog!), we are teaching the horse something; the horse sees all.
Release training is actually more aptly called teaching as it taps into the logical side of the horse’s brain, while training is more about the physical aspect of the horse. Training gets them strong and increases their range of movement but this is all worthless if the horse isn’t using this new, strong range of movement willingly. We need both and, to get the best value out of the hours of physical training a good riding horse needs, you will need to get them willing first and then build the range of movement; not the other way around or you will find yourself coming up against a resistant horse with no mental or physical try.
Now, some of you might be thinking you don’t need much strength in your horse as they are already strong, but you may be assuming that horses are quite able to carry extra weight on their backs. However, they are not designed for this. A horse’s back is strong enough to carry its own big, fat, heavy belly while it’s running; not yours as well! He he! If you have ever had a go at planking and got to where you can hold yourself up for a few minutes, you should feel proud and get some idea of how a horse feels holding its back up but how about you get one of the kids to sit on your back while you plank or how about they bounce up and down – how long could you plank then?
So, my point is all riding horses, at some time in their lives, are going to need those back muscles developed in a positive way and the sooner the better. If you don’t take this on board as your responsibility, the horse will eventually break down somewhere due to lack of strength or lack of proper posture. It may take 5 years, it may take 15, but it will happen, so avoid it and get your horse willingly using their full range of movement and get them strong, especially in the back.
Ok, we have a reason to train and teach a horse so how do we go about it? There are many ways and methods of training out there with some great patterns, so I will leave it to you to choose but my main focus for this article concerns how you go about your training tasks and how you give to your horse during training, causing them to think their way through tasks rather than just do as they are told. We want to teach our horses and develop their try, willingness and the connection that comes with that, which is actually my favorite part.
Release doesn’t mean there has to be pressure first. It’s the second dictionary definition – “allow to move or flow freely” which best matches our use of the word. It is just us humans who think there has to be pressure for release and it is time to change that thought. Ok, so now we understand release but we are also going to need some direction otherwise the horse will just have to rely on telepathy and I am not so sure we are all ready for that! So, how to give direction in the task? Well, most would use pressure or brainwash a cue. But the pressure will always create an equal amount of pressure back at you, which in turn builds resistance, so that isn’t an option and a cue is not adjustable enough in the moment as it is just a right brain reaction, so that isn’t an option either. How about we use good feel – just light enough that they can feel direction but not so heavy that it creates discomfort; sounds perfect.
Does pressure ever get used? Well, sometimes it does – like if the horse doesn’t respect your body language. However, every time you have to use pressure that task doesn’t count as a positive learning experience and you will need to go through the task again and give the horse another chance to respect your space and body language, just as they do with each other. Let’s look at a task to help you picture this. You are on the ground and you ask your horse to go out of your personal space and around you at a trot. You give clear direction with your lead rope (this doesn’t mean go yet), you lift up your body language and put some energy toward their front to get them to go in the direction you want (now they should go). But, say they don’t go – before you move your feet (the one who moves their feet least is the leader) – you increase your body language with the swing of a rope or stick toward the same spot as your body language is pointing. If they still don’t go, drat you are going to have to move your feet while swinging your rope and if they haven’t gone by the time you get there, the rope or stick will be causing discomfort, they’ll finally move and you’ll give the lead rope to them offering comfort as they move around you. This will be the important part that you want them to remember – the release part not all the pressure. Now, they did move but that was from pressure, so it doesn’t count and you will need to do the whole process again. But this time the horse knows there is release on the other end of the clear direction you are giving and it is their choice to stay or not and, because they understand the task, you can go a little quicker through the process (not too quick though until they get good at following direction).
This is a pretty short explanation but I hope you get the idea. The same steps apply in riding as well; try not to use pressure first and try not to scare your horse with pressure by not being clear with your direction. If you can get to where your horse understands that no mater where you direct them they will find release, they will start to put extra effort into finding that release and your transitions will become willing, your horse will use positive muscles rather than resistance, and a connection of trust will build between you making both of you feel confident no mater what situation or task arises. Welcome to the world of a release focused horseman!