GENTLING WILD HORSES USING
"PRESSURE & RELEASE" / "APPROACH & RETREAT"
The term "Approach and Retreat" is often used to describe the basic principles of Natural Horsemanship.
And yet, what does it mean? As a friend once lamented, "But every time I approach, he retreats!"
Perhaps a better term would be "Pressure and Release," or "Ask and Reward."
To teach anything to a horse, you ASK, which the horse experiences as pressure. When the horse does the right thing, you stop asking, which the horse feels as a release from the pressure. In this way, s/he learns what it is you want.
THE HORSE LEARNS FROM THE RELEASE
WHAT YOU RELEASE IS WHAT HE LEARNS
This concept, combined with the horse's natural "hard-wiring" to look for a leader, and his/her recognition that the leader is the one who can move his/her feet, combine to make gentling possible.
The whole key to horse training is TIMING:
Timing is everything. It takes effort to learn, but there is no way out of it. If you are going to work successfully with wild horses, you need to pay attention, learn to recognize when the horse tries, and to reward it instantly.
You will mess up sometimes, but horses are forgiving. They recognize if you are sincerely trying, just as you need to recognize if they are! Keep working on it. The amazing thing is that wild horses usually do try to work with us.
How to reward? Simply "release the pressure" - stop asking.
Stop, release the rope if you're using one, step back a step, praise verbally.
Some people find that the use of a clicker to accentuate the desired behavior can be helpful. Classical clicker training involves the use of a food treat as a reward, but this must be taught. When considering clicker training for wild horses, be aware - hand-feeding can turn horses into piranhas!
An essential part of learning to use clicker training includes training the horse to respect your space and not to mug you constantly for treats. I personally do not advise using food treats for horses (wild or domestic) that you do not have a very solid relationship with already, or unless you are already very experienced in clicker training - in which case, you don't need to be reading this!
"Giving to Pressure:"
Wild horses do not, I repeat - DO NOT, need to be taught to "give to pressure."
Wild horses are amazingly light and responsive. They totally know how to give to pressure. They do not need to drag a rope that trips them or yanks their head every step they take in order to learn to give to pressure! Your job is try to work with, and hopefully maintain that lightness, by handling them with the same sensitivity and responsiveness that they already have. Learn to recognize the try and to reward quickly.
Here are a few examples of "Pressure and Release:"
Reddy Colt was a 2-year-old BLM colt who had been returned to BLM. As BLM Volunteers, we took him to halter train in hopes of getting him a better home. It worked. The way we worked with Reddy was the best we knew how at that time, and is typical of most intermediate adopters and trainers. Looking at it now, I would be less intent on getting him to run laps, and instead work to make each movement from me have meaning, and to try for as subtle, quiet cues as possible to still get a response. Short sessions, 10-15 minutes average, are better than long ones, and progress will be rapid if you ask for one thing and release as soon as you get it.
Step 1: Movement
Reddy had been previously adopted, so he was not as afraid of us as a typical fresh wild horse would be. But he was not safe to come in to us. He was used to people, but he had no relationship with them. He had LOTS of movement, but it was frantic, explosive, and not safe to be around.
1B. At some point the horse figures out that we are simply asking him to go in a circle - we are not "after" him or trying to eat him.
1A. So we started by simply asking him to move
Our first goal was to get him moving under our direction in a soft and relaxed manner.
We wanted him to become responsive rather than reactive.
1C. "THERE'S A CHANGE!" He lowers his head to a more normal, less "high alert" posture, licks and chews, and his feet stop pounding the earth. He just trots along in a nice, relaxed fashion.
Now we can start asking him to stop and face up toward us - the first step toward catching and connecting.
STEP 2: DIRECTION
Ask the horse to change directions, when you ask for it. Don't allow him to randomly change directions when he feels like it.
Make sure to "train both sides!" The two sides of a horse's brain tend to operate more independently of one another than ours (even though people may be "right-brained" or "left-brained") - just because a horse knows something on one side does not mean he will automatically know it on the other. Many adopters report at some point that their horse will not allow them on one side. Some even go so far as to report that their horse may be blind in one eye. "Sidedness" is a learned behavior. By consciously working both sides from the very beginning, we can prevent this.
People who don't understand Natural Horsemanship often say they see no reason to run a horse around in a circle 'til his tongue hangs out. That is NOT the point, and should be avoided if at all possible! Frequently asking for changes in direction is a good way to prevent this, and to actively engage both sides of the horse's brain.
By blocking forward movement, the horse is encouraged to turn the other way.
People often say, "But he's turning his butt to you!" He is, but it is incidental to executing the turn, not with the intention of kicking you or avoiding you. Intent is everything!
Ideally, a horse also learns an "inside turn." Every horse finds that one or the other turn is easier for them. Reddy easily learned the outside turn, but had not mastered the inside turn at the time he was adopted, and I can't find any photos of him doing it.
Step 3: CONNECTION
Most people's main focus is to get their hands on a wild horse. That's not how we do it. We could have gotten our hands on Reddy right away, but he didn't understand the human, and wasn't safe to be close to just yet.
Once we got some ground control, we could start asking Reddy to start to connect with us. We did this by asking for movement, then stopping and offering him a place to stop, and then offering him to step toward us.
Stop and ask him to look at us
B. Then step back to reward.
ASK & REWARD
1. ASK: Step back a step, call to him, Invite him to look at you.
2. REWARD: When he looked, we'd step back, praise, and rest a minute, as long as he looked at us. If he refused, we'd ask for more movement.
We repeated this over and over again, over a period of days, and gradually we started to see progress. The looks lasted longer, and Reddy began to face up with his whole body.
And finally, he began to take a step or two toward us.
At this point, we began to offer him a sniff of our hands. If he didn't accept, we'd just ask for movement again, and then offer again for a look, a step forward, and a sniff.
It was good to have these pictures, to prove to ourselves that there really was progress, because sometimes it seemed so slow that it was hard to recognize the very real progress we were making.
Basic Training Begins At Liberty:
While still at liberty, long before even trying to touch him, Reddy started to connect with us and to watch us for direction. This allowed us to start teaching the basics of ground control: various turns both toward and away from the human, shoulders away, hind quarter yield, etc. Here, Mike is working with the rudiments of what will later become shoulder control
1E. Shoulder Yield/Turn on the hindquarters: The horse pivots on his hindquarters by stepping with his front feet. foot closest to the human steps in front of the stationary foot, performing the first part of what will eventually become a roll-back (when he is under saddle. But this is where it starts)
1F. Hind Quarter Yield/Turn on the Forehand: Note the right hind foot stepping under the belly in front of the stationary left hind foot. This indicates that the horse is softening and flexing, accepting your leadership. The hindquarters are the horse's strength, what he uses to get away from danger. "Yielding the Hindquarters" indicates that he no longer feels the need to flee, and is no longer feeling the need to be braced and ready to go. He is accepting the human as a leader who can take care of him.
Before we knew it, we could attach a lead rope to his halter.
Now we could do conventional ground work training.
A. ASK FOR FORWARD STEP: Note the tension on the rope is taut enough to clearly communicate to the horse that movement in one direction is desired. Yet it is not an aggressive tug that the horse might feel threatened by
B. REWARD THE TRY: The horse take one step toward the human, so pressure is released. Note the rope is already slack before the step is completed. It is the THOUGHT you are rewarding. As soon as the horse indicates by any ever-so-slight movement that it is processing the thought correctly, release the pressure, wait a second, and start again. Even if the horse just leans in the right direction, reward it. Leaning indicates he is thinking the right thought.
Don't be greedy! In the early stages, even leaning in the right direction is enough. Do not demand that the horse perform perfectly at first.
ASK AGAIN: This time the horse resists. Don't tug, just hold your ground.
Release immediately for correct response
It all pays off!
Yielding to the pressure of the rope (very LIGHT pressure!) and performing a great shoulder yield
Trotting circles on a slack lead line
At this point, Reddy began to really let down and start trusting. And, as luck would have it, at this time someone adopted him. So that is as far as we got with Reddy.
But we gave him a good start - hopefully the new adopters will take up where we left off.
CREATING HEAD SHY HORSES:
Traditionally, horses are sent home from adoption facilities or events, wearing a halter and long drag rope. Many people say this is a good thing to "teach a horse to give to pressure." My feeling is that wild horses are so sensitive, there is absolutely no reason to "teach them to give to pressure." If you think this is true, I suggest you turn your focus, instead, to learning to recognize the horse's tries, and to develop your timing so that your release is quicker.
Having to drag a yucky, dirty, wet drag line for weeks or months tends to make horses head shy. The frustration of having their head jerked down and their forward movement stopped, every time they accidentally step on the rope, is hard on them, and worse, their vertebrae can actually experience injury from all the sudden jerking.
In these case studies, two horses stand out as being excessively head shy: Penny and Black Filly2. Penny had a drag line for sure, and BF2 most likely did, too, as that is a common experience for horses who end up being returned to BLM, as BF2 had been.
Penny, at her first adopter's insistence, was sent home from the adoption wearing a halter and drag line, which she wore until she could be handled, a process that took several weeks. During this time, I watched in agony as she would accidentally step on her rope, even while running, and thus her movement would be abruptly stopped and her head jerked violently. Penny became one of the most head-shy horses I have ever been around.
The typical wild horse with a drag line. Although this pic was taken just a few days after her adoption, you can see in her face that she is already starting to be afraid of hurting her head when she steps.
Once we got the halter and drag line off her, Penny was determined never to allow it on again.
Penny was kind and sweet when at liberty.
With time and gentleness, Penny did learn eventually to allow herself to be haltered, but she is likely always to retain a tendency to revert to head-shyness.
The other head-shy horse is Black Filly2.
I know little of her history except that she was previously adopted at least once, before I was sent her as a project horse. She showed extreme head sensitivity issues from the first day I worked her. Her fear of having her head pressured are so deep that, as of this writing, I have had her at a top-notch trainer for 2 months already, and he still is not able to get her to reliably flex her neck to one side. Physiologic problems have been ruled out, as she is quite capable of flexing on her own, such as to scratch an itch.
BF2 was, almost from the beginning, light and responsive with just a rope slung loosely over her shoulders, but it took 3 weeks to get anything on her head. The moment she would sense that haltering was about to be attempted, she would panic and rear up violently. I know - you think it was because I must have acted like predator, creeping up on her with the halter. No, I didn't. She just really did already have that reaction.
Eventually she started to allow it, but she never got soft with it, and if the pressure was up a bit (a more distracting environment, for instance) she became hard to handle.
Black Filly2 is sweet and kind and really tries hard, but is truly fearful about her head. Something happened to her previously, that she is having trouble letting go of. It could have been as simple as having to drag around a rope for several weeks, and getting her head jerked painfully, every time she accidentally stepped on it.
I would not normally show this picture, as it can be misconstrued. Please note that the trainer has not caused this - he simply asked BF2 to step toward him, and she blew up, fighting the pressure of the halter on her head. This is very dangerous behavior, both to the horse (who could fall over backward and injure her spine or skull) and obviously, to a human who might be on the ground near her. And you certainly can't ride that! So it has to be fixed before saddle training is a possibility. Because her response was so extreme, I found it difficult to work with her, so I called in master trainer, Jerry Tindell, who is an expert in troubled horses and mules.
Having evaluated her (above), Jerry Tindell started BF2's rehabilitation by working her from horseback, since she was too strong and too braced to work from the ground.
And teaching her to ground drive, from the safety of long reins. She is making progress, but it is slow, even in the hands of a master. Stay tuned.