To humans there is a subtle difference between holding and pulling and most simply can’t tell the difference. Horses, however, can tell the difference and they respond quite differently. Imagine you are leaning against a wall, when you are ready you simply straighten up and walk away, the wall stays where it is and the whole deal is done. Now imagine the wall is leaning on you, if you walk away it will fall on you and you will be crushed. That’s the difference the horse experiences between pulling and holding.
When a human is holding a rein, or line, taught, it may look like they are pulling but they are simply holding a frame or position, when the horse moves off the pressure the rein, or line, immediately becomes loose and the pressure goes away. Conversely, when the human is pulling on the horse, the pressure does not go away no matter what the horse does. Eventually the horse becomes frustrated as it tries to find a way out of the predicament and it may completely shut down, it may become dull and require even more pressure to get a response or it may blow up and get to bucking to find relief.
This (human) behaviour is most apparent when backing a horse up, it is not uncommon to see people pull the horse’s chin to its chest and keep pulling until the horse has completed ten steps back, or whatever the goal was. There is no relief or release for the horse until the task is completed. Fortunately, for the rider, horses are by nature gentle and forgiving creatures that will tolerate of a lot of abuse from the human. After pulling the horse back the human finally let’s go.
Now holding a position is a is a very different thing, as long as the hold is not at the end of the horse’s range of motion. If the hold is where the horse’s chin hits its chest there is no relief that the horse can provide by being compliant. The human cannot possibly feel the horse trying to get off the pressure and there is, and can be, no release. In backing putting enough pressure on and holding it such that the horse can get off the pressure either by further tucking its chin, giving on the poll, or by stepping back to where the rider drops the reins providing a release the horse can learn to move away from pressure.
This post is similar to others because it is very important for humans to recognize that most of the time the trouble with a horse is what they are bringing to the table not what the horse brings. Another important ingredient for horses to learn about yielding to pressure is time, they need time to process and think their way through the situation. Often horses will try pushing against the pressure, this is often seen where the rider is pulling and the horse surges its head and neck forward pulling the rider off balance to obtain a moment of relief. They might try moving side to side or turning to try to avoid the pressure but once they discover that stepping back provides relief that will become their go-to move. Always remember, if your horse is pulling on you it’s because you pulled on him.