I don't know how many times I've heard it. A million or more from different trainers talking about different things. It's one of the fundamentals of the natural horsemanship movement and the foundation for what good horsemen have been doing with horses for years.
Horses don't learn from pressure, they learn from the release of pressure
Once you understand this, and I mean really understand it, training horses is easy. Super easy. All you do, no matter what you are training a horse to do is release your signal or cue or pressure when they give the appropriate response. Horses are pre-programmed to "get" that.
The hang up comes if you don't have a clear picture of what you are after in the horse or if you don't have the timing to release at just the right time. Then you are rewarding the horse for behavior you don't intend to and the horse gets confused and quits responding or retaliates because you aren't making any sense.
I experienced a really good example of this tonight. We got home after work and had about 20 minutes between thunderstorms to work with our horses. We jumped out of the truck and grabbed halters eyeing the skyline the entire time. I chose to grab my 2 year old colt because 20 minutes of groundwork with him is still productive whereas 20 minutes of riding my other geldings is almost counter productive. You can barely get them warmed up in that amount of time.
So, I saddled my 2 year old to do some groundwork and decided to work on the exercise where you teach the horse to pick you up off the fence. I've had nothing but frustration with this particular exercise. I've watched Buck Brannaman do it several times and he makes it look incredibly easy. You just bump the horse until he steps towards you. No biggie. Yeah, right. I've tried and tried to get the horse to step towards me. All they do is stand perpendicular to you and the fence with their head in your lap.
But this weekend we watched Bryan Neubert teach this exercise. I love Bryan. He makes things so simple. He explained that the entire goal of the exercise is to release when the horse's hind leg (the one furthest from the fence) comes towards you. Duh. Why didn't anybody ever say that? Of course that's what we're after because then the horse steps his hip towards the fence. So, after attempting (unsuccessfully, I might add) to teach this to my other two geldings, I tried it with Kit tonight. 10 minutes. Seriously. All it took was 10 minutes for me to communicate to him that all I was asking was for him to move his butt towards the fence and me and then I was climbing on board from the fence.
Clarity in communication is so important in our horsemanship. And in life in general, isn't it? Once you are able to calmly and effective communicate what you are asking, horses and humans seem more than willing to comply. It's not that Kit is smarter or more willing or more trainable than my other two horses. It's that I finally had a clear understanding on exactly what behavior I needed to release for.
Another example of teaching by releasing was demonstrated to me by a client this past week. These clients are new to horses and have their hands full with a couple of youngsters that they are trying to do their best with. One of the young horses cut her leg a few weeks ago. She is a yearling and a handful and only recently was halter broke. Not good timing for having to do some doctoring on her. I figured once we got her sedated it wouldn't be a big deal but this little youngster has a ton of fight in her. She is a leaver. Anytime you do something she doesn't like she bolts. Past you, over you, through you, she's not picky. Trying to keep her from bolting is almost impossible.
Unfortunately, these folks, in an attempt to keep her calm when she would get upset and need to bolt they would just let her go. While I understand their thinking, "let's not contain her and make it worse", but they were inadvertently rewarding her bolting behavior until you almost couldn't get near her without her leaving the zip code. Eventually it got to the point that I couldn't even sedate her because I couldn't get anywhere near her.
So, I took the lead rope from them and let her bolt around me, but kept her in a circle. I kept touching her and just asking her to key in and hang out with me but allowed her to leave if she needed to, but only in a tight circle around me. It took her 3 or 4 minutes before she realized that bolting was no longer the answer and she decided standing still was. I never made her stay with me. I just didn't release the pressure of the bumping on her nose until she stopped her mad dash around me. I sedated her and we got on with our treatment. I was amazed how fast she gave in. She had initially started bolting because she was scared, but because she kept getting release from that behavior she kept it up. Once she didn't get release from it anymore she quit so fast you would have never believed it had been a problem for her.
So, you can just as easily reinforce bad behavior as you can good behavior depending on when the release comes. That's when timing comes into play. And that is a whole 'nother topic!