This is my first blog on this site so I felt it appropriate to do it on what, in my view, is probably the most important lesson we could ever learn about horsemanship – release (reward). The word is bantered around, almost as much as the term “contact” and both actions are often misunderstood or at least misrepresented to the horse.
I will write a separate blog on contact, because that is an important topic too, so what exactly does release mean and when and how it should be applied. Buck Brannaman descries release as “a complete absence of pressure” and I can think of no better description. In other words, just letting a little slack into the reins is not enough of a reward signal. When developing communication with our horses we really need to be as clear as possible.
The release needs to be absolutely clear to the horse and when it happens and it must be sustained for the horse to process what just happened. If we release and pick up again too quickly the horse may not notice the release took place. Horses don’t think in the same way people do they tend to be more black and white, they don’t try to hard to guess what we mean. Exaggerating the release helps us to develop softer hands and a better feel and makes our intentions clearer to our horse.
We must leave some time between the release and our next request to repeat the action. For example if we were asking our horse to back up we should release on every single step and pause, or dwell, before asking for the next. It will take longer to develop a back up than it might by using a painful pulling action but the results will be far more rewarding for both horse and rider. Gradually we will find that we only need to make a few light intermittent bumps to keep our horse moving backwards – the horse will understand what we are asking for and we will require very little effort.
Try this exercise:
Sitting very still on your horse using your usual bridle tack pick up on your reins until they are barely taught (in a straight line between your hands and the horse’s mouth) hold for a slow count to five if the horse gives to the pressure completely drop the reins if not just wait, it might take several minutes. Count to ten very, very slowly before repeating the drill, do that for about four-five repeats and each time observe the horse’s reaction to see if it starts to tuck its chin earlier, as it feels the reins being picked up. If it does, drop the reins even more quickly. You should find that the horse is learning that the (light) contact has meaning, the meaning is coming not from the contact but from the release. The horse learns that the contact goes away every time it tucks its chin. You are learning that you really don’t need to pull and you are developing a feel for light contact, that will gradually develop meaning.
Now, if you find that you are holding the reins and not getting any response just try holding longer until you do get a response. If you have held for more than say three minutes and still not had any response, you might (using only a wrist action as if tapping your finger) gently bump on one rein until you do get a response. The first tries from the horse may be very small, almost imperceptible, but reward them with a full release anyway and don’t rush to get going again, especially if it went really well, there is always another day and remember to leave the exercise on a high note, even if that is early.
Key points to always keep in mind: do not hurry under any circumstances – use as little pressure as is required to elicit the desired response; do not increase the pressure unless you started at breakfast and it’s getting on supper time; wait; be patient; release as soon as you get the slightest desired response – in the case of a back up when one foots starts to move (don’t wait for the step to finish just release as the foot moves); drop so much slack into the reins that the release in unquestionable; count to at least ten, very, very slowly in between each ask. Above all remember this is not a race it is a striving for understanding and communication you can build on it but if you are reading this blog you are probably just starting out so don’t even think about having a finished horse yet.