Training Mythunderstandings:
Pressure and Body Language

by Ron Meredith
President, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Heeding uses methodically applied, horse-logical pressures to enable the horse to feel the shape we want him to take. That is so important, you should go back and read it again. 

The pressures must be methodical and consistent. The pressures the horse feels as a particular shape when we first start working with him on the ground must feel the same when we first get into the saddle. They should still feel the same when he gets to advanced work in whatever game we're going to play with him later on. As he advances, he's going to learn new shades of meaning from those pressures. But the basic meaning never changes.

The pressures must be horse logical. Our goal is to build calmness and trust between ourself and our horse. If the pressures we use to help him understand the shapes we want him to take for the games we want to play are not horse logical, those pressures will make the horse anxious instead of calm, apprehensive instead of trusting. 

Let me give you an example. When I first started training in the 1950s, some trainers felt the best way to get a horse's attention was by behaving like a predator and attacking the horse. The trainer wanted that horse to regard him as the biggest, baddest thing in the barn and to show him a sign of proper respect. That sign was that the horse was to turn and face him. So a trainer working with a new stallion might go into the horse's stall and make a lot of commotion with a whip or whatever to get the horse stirred up and running around from corner to corner. The trainer would keep after the horse until the horse turned and faced him. Then he'd back the pressure off.

From the horse's viewpoint, there was nothing horse logical about this pressure at all. From his perspective, he was being attacked by a predator and was looking for some way to escape. The horse had to find the "correct" response the trainer wanted by accidentally doing it the first time. The trainer would "attack" the horse over and over until he finally conditioned the horse to turn and face him whenever he entered the horse's stall.

Getting the horse's attention is the first step in heeding, too. But instead of attacking the horse to get it, we play on his natural instincts to shape a horse logical situation. Some horses are curious enough that when something new enters their space (their stall, their paddock, their pasture), they just naturally turn to take a look at it. If they don't pay attention to us, we might make a very tiny fuss (a small clicking or kissing noise, tapping a hand against a thigh, shaking a lead rope very quietly) to ask them to pay attention. We might move our secondary line just a little relative to theirs to put a little pressure on their "space."

If they still don't turn and give us their attention, we do not make the fussy pressure louder. If a Frenchman does not understand what you just said to him in English, he will not understand it any better if you repeat it again only louder. The same is true of the horse. So we just keep up the pressure until it becomes annoying enough that the horse decides he's got to stop whatever else he's doing, and have a look at it. Kind of like a fly that's finally annoyed him enough that he swings his tail at it.

If you learn to read the horse's body language, he will always tell you when the pressure has crossed the line from being something that gets his attention to something he feels as predatory.

As long as the horse is working with rhythm and relaxation, he is paying attention to the pressure and his is comfortable with it. The first way a horse will break his rhythmic connection with his handler is by holding his breath. So a horse can break his rhythm while he's just standing still as much as when he's on the move. Whenever his muscles tense for some reason other than they work they are doing, the handler has lost relaxation. Signs that the horse is giving you calm attention with rhythm and relaxation include:

  • steady, rhythmic breathing
  • soft chewing
  • relaxed muscles
  • relaxed ears, focused in direction of handler

Any movement that in even the tiniest way mimics the kicking or biting or running away that the horse would do to protect itself from a predator means the handler has crossed the line. The first signs of this can be very subtle--that simple holding of the horse's breath, for example. So just as the horse must pay close attention to the handler, the handler has to pay close attention to the horse. Signs that the pressure you are putting on the horse has become too loud include:

  • break in breathing
  • raising head
  • pinning ears
  • grinding teeth
  • tensing back muscles
  • tensing neck muscles
  • unweighting a hind foot
  • raising a hind foot
  • raising tail
  • swishing tail
  • tightening facial muscles
  • snaking neck
  • extending head while lowering neck
  • shuddering
  • startling
  • moving off quickly

When the horse has any of these reactions to a pressure, that's a "swear pressure." When someone thinks the way to make the horse pay attention to a pressure it just ignored is to repeat it again, only louder, that pressure usually becomes a swear pressure. Maybe the handler didn't have the horse's attention to begin with. So they need to repeat the pressure at the same level until the horse does pay attention to it. Or maybe the pressure was not horse logical. Or maybe it was more than one step away from something the horse already knows.

Heeding uses methodically applied, horse logical pressures to create the feel of a shape in the horse's mind. The trainer must break lessons down into their smallest possible components. Each new thing the horse learns should only be one horse-logical step away from something he already knows. The pressures must be applied consistently from moment to moment, day to day, month to month. They should always mean the same thing to the horse. The horse must pay attention to the trainer at all times and the trainer gets that by paying attention to the horse at all times. The goal is to build calmness and trust along with understanding of the shapes we want the horse to take.

Watching good training is boring unless you understand the finer points of communicating with your horse.


Meredith Manor is an equestrian career college dedicated to preparing students for hands-on, equestrian careers as trainers, instructors, equine massage therapists, stable managers, farriers and more. If you want a career with horses and are considering attending Meredith Manor, request an information packet to learn more.



I had a great time at the Manor and really enjoyed my education there. More than anything I loved all of the riding theory we got there. They really care to tell you WHY you are doing what they are telling you to do. I love having the huge bank of knowledge that I was given at the Manor, and I would not trade that for anything.
Amy Krentz Ford: 2007 Riding Master VI Graduate