One of the basic Groundwork exercises is yielding to physical aids (aka: yielding to direct pressure). The purpose of this basic Groundwork exercise is teaching the horse to go along with the slight pressure he/she feels on his/her body, to yield in other words.
“Yielding to physical aids” is the same as “yielding to direct pressure”, but I prefer to name it “yielding to physical aids”. Because it is my intention that the horse experiences the physical pressure as an “aid”, something that “helps” him to understand what is asked.
Many things we do with horses have something to do with pressure, and so for keeping the daily handling and training of the horse enjoyable and safe (not just for us, for the horse too), it is very important that the horse learns to yield to direct pressure instead of going against it. We can tackle that in a respectful manner step by step.
Teaching yielding to pressure is an exercise in which one applies negative reinforcement. For instance, you ask the horse to take a step backwards. You apply pressure to the nose with the halter. When the horse takes a step back, you let go. As a result, the pressure is gone. Because the pressure is released you reinforce the horse’s action on that moment, namely stepping backwards. You have rewarded your horse.
The fact that you take something away is the reward, because the horse is relieved of that which feels less comfortable than when it is not there. That sounds sad, which is why you sometimes hear people suggest that it is “not done” to teach a horse to yield to pressure. In reality, these people also constantly use negative reinforcement, but they are not aware of it.
teaching a horse to be attached to a wall. When the horse steps back too far, the rope tightens; the horse will have to be able to handle the pressure behind the ears. A horse taking a step forward is a horse yielding to the direct pressure behind the ears. A horse that begins to pull the rope and tries to get loose is a horse that resists and does not yield to physical pressure. A young horse will have to learn to yield to pressure behind the ears. You do that by teaching the horse to take a step forward when you apply a light physical aid on the halter. On that moment you release the pressure.
- asking a horse to get off the trailer backwards = you will first teach this by making the horse yield to physical aids (direct pressure) on the chest (or nose, depending on how you do it).
- asking your horse to take a step to the side so that you can pass = your horse yields to the pressure of your hand on the side of his/her body
- asking your horse to lift his/her hoof: your horse yields to the pressure of your hands on his/her lower leg.
- as well as normal leading. Even though you mostly use your body language here, the horse could be startled and tighten the rope for instance. A horse that has not learned to yield to pressure will need more time to calm down again, because in addition to the startle response, the sudden pressure behind the ears can lead to a panic response.
- Asking lateral flexion with the inside rein = yielding to direct pressure of the inside rein.
- Asking lateral flexion on the lunge= your horse yields to the direct pressure of the lunge.
- Asking your horse to step forward whilst riding = yielding to direct pressure of the leg.
- Having your horse do a leg-yield = your horse yields sideways to the direct pressure of the leg.
Negative reinforcement to reward the horse, thus sounds more negative than it actually is. So, this is not so negative as long as you take into account the feelings of the horse when teaching yielding to pressure, and as long as you make sure you are not frightening, upsetting or hurting the horse. This also means that your physical aids should really be aids, with the intention to help the horse and not to force the horse. Because in that case there is no communication, but force. And physical aids should always be communication,not force!
How do you do that?
It is extremely important that you use the right body language, but also that you have the right intention and work with much feel. When you ask your horse to yield for physical aids, what you are actually doing is asking your horse to move in a certain direction. For example: if you ask “head low” then you are asking your horse to move with his head downwards. If you ask to back up, then you ask your horse to move in that direction.
So when asking your horse to yield or to yield with a particular body part, then this will go much easier when you ask this with an intention of “giving direction” versus asking to yield for pressure. Your horse will feel the different kind of energy, it will feel more friendly and more natural to your horse.
You need to start applying the physical aid – the physical pressure – very subtly, so that you never have to use too much pressure, and you need to set up the phases in such a way that the horse has time to think about it, try things and eventually come to the right solution.
Never use phases in which you apply so much pressure that the horse becomes angry or frightened. If your horse does not yield to light pressure, look for an alternative. Either you wait or you help the horse find the solution by, for example:
- With head down and nose to flank -> inviting with your other free hand
- With forequarter-yield -> adjusting your position and posture
- Making use of obstacles such as beams, the fence or a hallway to help the horse find “the solution”.
You do not only have to work with negative reinforcement (releasing the pressure). You can also use a combination of negative and positive reinforcement (such as a food reward) if you notice that your horse needs extra motivation.
Basic groundwork exercises yielding to direct pressure
- Head down: we teach the horse to yield to slight pressure behind the ears. The horse will bring his/her head down.
- Stepping forward: we teach the horse to step forward when we apply slight pressure behind the ears in a forward direction. This is the preparation for being attached to wall.
- Nose to flank: the horse learns to yield to subtle pressure on the side of the head. The horse brings his/her nose towards the flank.
- Backwards on the nose: the horse takes a step back when he/she feels a slight backwards pressure on the nose.
- Backwards on the chest: the horse takes a step back when he/she feels the slight pressure on the chest.
- Hindquarter yield: the horse learns to yield to subtle physical pressure on the hind quarters. The horse takes a step to the side (steps over) with the hind leg while the forehand remains in the same position.
- Forequarters yield: the horse learns to yield to subtle physical pressure on the shoulders. The horse takes a step to the side with his foreleg while the hind legs remains in the same position.
- Bending: the horse yields to the slight pressure on the girth area by bending his/her body (the muscles tighten on the side where you apply pressure)
- Follow the rope: the horse yields to the slight pressure on the halter by bringing the nose to the flank and then following the rope that surrounds his body.
When the horse understands these basic exercises and yields to physical aids in a relaxed way, we can make these exercises more difficult by
- continuing the exercise for a longer time (such as head down and nose to flank)
- demanding increasingly more steps (such as backwards and yielding with hindquarters, forequarters)
- teaching the horse to respond more quickly
- making a combination of exercises (such as head down + backwards)
- performing these exercises in more challenging conditions (such as on an obstacle course, in traffic, on the trailer)
When the horse is good at these 9 basic exercises on the ground, the daily interaction as well as riding will be more enjoyable!
Learning to yield to pressure should be seen as a form of communication, just like a six-year-old child learning to read, which makes his/her life a whole lot easier. A horse yielding to physical aids is a real pleasure to work with. It understands your aids better, which gives the horse more self-confidence and confidence in the trainer!
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