We often talk about a “sweet spot”, or a “no spank” or “no pressure” zone in horse training. Today I wanted to talk a little bit more about this idea and its relationship to pressure. Specifically, the way in which we often accidentally “sour” the sweet spot through incorrect timing and application of pressure.
To help illustrate this concept, pretend that someone close to you has asked you to be their partner in a dance competition.
The dance looks simple enough, but at the end of the song, there’s a movement involved that you’ve never done before. Let’s say that your partner’s approach to teaching you this movement looks like this:
they give you a quick description of what the movement should look like, tell you they’ll lead the way, and then you jump right into the dance. As the final movement approaches, your stomach clenches in a knot. What did he say again? Finally, the dance is at its end, and your partner yanks and pulls you through the last movement. You trip and stumble, land on your face, and look up to see your partner sighing in frustration.
From here, you and your partner try it again. But each time, the movement actually gets WORSE. You still don’t understand what exactly it is that your partner is trying to get you to do. And in response to the increase in pressure surrounding the movement, your muscles tighten up, and you start to become more and more resistant to your partner’s pulling and tugging.
Does this sounds like a time where you have tried to teach your horse a new concept? Does that sound like a dance YOU would want to take part in? Hopefully the answer is no! But without realizing it, we often create situations similar to this for our horses through improper timing and use of pressure. The most common areas I see this play out is in trailer loading, jumping, and liberty work. Below I’ve written out some tips to help you keep your sweet spot sweet and pressure free!
Horse trailers are naturally uncomfortable places for horses to be. So we have to be especially mindful when practicing that we do not add fuel to that fire with too much pressure, too much criticism or too high an expectation; pushing them either further into their skepticism of the task at hand. If we think back to our dance scenario, what’s the best way to practice something new or difficult? Is it better to just keep trying a new, complex dance move over and over again and hope you get it? Or is it better to break the movement down, master the smaller pieces, and then try to put it all together again?
Just like in dancing, if your horse is struggling, take a step back, and isolate what isn’t working. Is your horse struggling with a tight space, or a lack of confidence stepping up into the trailer? Identify what isn’t working, and then take that piece and work on it AWAY from the trailer. Inside the trailer is not a place to address a horse that pulls back, paws or try to criticize them for their positioning. Maybe you need to go back and spend more time with a pedestal. Maybe you can work on a squeeze game with your horse to increase his confidence in tight spaces. Maybe you need to increase your horse’s understanding of how to yield to steady pressure from the halter. Maybe you need to increase their emotional fitness by tying or wrapping them for extended periods of time outside of the trailer……
When the piece is working again, recombine everything by going back to the trailer and trying again. Remember, the trailer should be a pressure free zone. Inside the trailer should be the sweet spot!
Think isolate, separate, and recombine…….
In jumping, the jump itself should always be the sweet spot. As you advance the CENTER of the jump should be the sweet spot.
Think of the jump as being the twelve o’clock spot on a clock. You would be standing in the middle of the clock, and if you’re facing the jump, six o’clock would be behind you. To your right is three o’clock,
and to your left is nine o’clock.
If your horse is between twelve and three, or twelve and nine, and they are approaching the jump, they are in the no pressure or “no spank” zone. DO NOT add pressure in these situations! If your horse refuses the jump, don’t pressure (or nag with incessant clucking) them over it! Instead, ask your horse to switch directions, and send them to the jump again.
The idea here is to create a sweet spot. By only adding pressure in the direction changes, the jump becomes the sweet spot, and your horse will eventually decide that maintaining gait and direction over the jump is much easier than switching directions and feeling the pressure. But this only works if the approach to the jump is pressure free.
A short video on “Hunt The Jump”
Similar to jumping, in liberty work, YOU should be the sweet spot! Too often, as a horse begins to leave us at liberty, we add pressure and drive them away. This contaminates the sweet spot we are trying to create. So how do we fix this? Think of a five-foot bubble surrounding you wherever you go. If your horse is still in that bubble, don’t use pressure to correct them! You can correct the horse once they are outside of your five-foot bubble. Or, if you and your horse are really struggling to understand, isolate, separate, and recombine! Go back to on-line to create clarity and understanding until your horse understands the goal. The sweet spot is a super important concept to understand when working with your horse! Remember, as a general rule if your horse leaves you more that 2 times it is verging on becoming a pattern. So, instead of falling into the definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result) ask yourself how you could break it down for your horse and reinforce where the sweet is.
If you are struggling with the timing of pressure or with how to create a sweet spot for your horse, find someone who can help you break the process down (isolate, separate, recombine!), film yourself so you can have an outsider’s perspective, or CALL ME and we can discuss how to set it up for success:) Your horse will thank you, and the results will speak for themselves!