Animals want to avoid pressure, and they need to experience release from pressure.

“Make the right way easy and the wrong way hard.”

Those words of wisdom were passed on to me as a very young man by my father who likely learned it from some form of the Tom and Bill Dorrance natural horsemanship that was widely popularized by men like Ray Hunt and later Buck Brannaman. It was my exposure to the training methods used in horsemanship that first helped me to learn the concept of pressure and release, and while there may not be a 100% absolutely direct correlation between working saddle or work horses and cattle, the differences are not worth highlighting here and much of the idea behind pressure and release is the same.

Steve Cote does a great job of illustrating this concept in his book Stockmanship, A powerful tool for grazing lands management. He begins chapter five with a short parable.

An old horse trainer once told an eager group of students, “None of you will be allowed to ride or handle the horses until you pass a simple test that has just one question.”

With that, he sat down on a bale of straw on top of a pulled horseshoe with nail stubs. He jumped up and asked the students “Why?”

After a moment of two of silence and blank stares, the students said the answer was simple: “Because it hurt.” But the trainer told them their answer was wrong. “none of you understand even the most basic premise of how to handle your horse properly.”

Cote, Steve, Stockmanship: A Powerful Tool for Grazing Lands Management. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2004 (pg.29)

If you still don’t know the correct answer you can take solace knowing that the author said he has asked the same question many times without getting the correct response also, but we can include a suggestion that the author makes later in the text on how we should approach working with our livestock that can provide a hint.

“Make all of your stock a promise that you will never break: When they respond right, you will release pressure, every time.” (pg.34)

It is up to the handler to observe the livestock and constantly be evaluating what is the proper amount of pressure and how to apply it. It may be analogous to spending money, you have to use enough to get the response necessary but you don’t want to use any more that you have to. If we do we desensitize our stock and more will be required in the future. Another example from the horse’s perspective might be if we ask him to move forward by pressuring him with our legs and he does so, but then continue to apply pressure as he walks forward he will come to the concussion that his response wasn’t correct therefore since it didn’t result in a release from the pressure there is little point in continuing to walk.

Exactly what the animal was doing when pressure was released plus a little time for them to enjoy the release of pressure and time for them to absorb the lesson are the keys to getting them react to pressure in a predictable and desirable way.

Hopefully a true understanding of pressure and release can help us answer the old horse trainer’s question of why he jumped up when we sat on the shoe. The real answer: “Because it stopped hurting when I jumped up.”