Poll Pressure: The First Building Block

One of the first things I assess and teach the horse is how to yield to poll pressure. I am constantly surprised by the number of horses already started under saddle that do not understand this essential concept. Yielding to pressure forms the basis of just about everything we do in horse handling, training, and riding. Teaching your horse to understand to yield to pressure rather than resist and fight, can be achieved at the poll quickly and efficiently. This minimises distress for the horse, even if they don’t yet understand this principle.

How It Works

Once a horse has learnt to yield to poll pressure, they are 90% of the way to being able to lead and tie up. These are basic skills required of horses for domestic life. Walking forward in response to poll pressure is a small extension of the horse’s knowledge. Teaching the yielding to poll pressure before teaching to lead is logical for the horse. You have taught the horse the correct answer to the question (can you yield and walk forward calmly please?) before even asking.

Similarly, tying up to a post or similar is basically already established upon yielding to poll pressure. The horse knows that when they feel the rope get tight that the correct answer is to stop, soften and give. They never have to fight against a pole to be taught to tie. Sure if you tie a horse to a pole and let him fight then he will eventually shut down and give in, or flip himself upside down, but is that really what you want for your horse? Not only have they learnt to fight against pressure rather than give to it, you risk injury and possibly even death for your young or green horse if they panic and are hard tied. Just as small wins rewarded lead to big wins, bad habits such as pulling back when tied can be avoided with simple steps in initial handling.

young green arabian horse resisting poll pressure
A young green horse resisting poll pressure

Changing Cognition To Yield

Yielding to poll pressure changes the horses cognitive process to give to pressure, rather than resist against it. Yielding to poll pressure early on in the training process allows the horse to transfer this knowledge of ‘giving to pressure’ to other aspects of their training as they progress. To ‘give’ or yield to leg pressure and create bend through the ribs, for example. As herd animals they are hard wired to push into pressure. We can see this when a foal pushes into his mother, or when a dominant animal pushes to the middle of the herd. Pushing into pressure keeps the horse safe because the guys on the outside get eaten by the tiger first.

You can also see this with a horse with ‘no ground manners’ pushing into their handler. Now I don’t for a second believe horses think we are horses or a part of their herd, they know we are not one of them. But, horses have this really great ability to relate to other species as though they were horses. The nervous horse will push into his owner in the same way a nervous horse is trying to ensure someone else in the herd gets eaten by the tiger first. Yielding to poll pressure is a large part of the process to establish a boundary between the handler and horse. A small extension of yielding to poll pressure is to step back when pressure is applied. Using this method teaches in a way that the horse can understand, and keeps the handler safe.

young green arabian horse yielding to poll pressure

Fight & Flight

The horses primary means of self preservation is flight mode. When flight mode is taken away and the threat still persists, the horse may go into fight mode. A horse operating in flight mode is problematic and we should avoid eliciting fight mode. Horses in flight are inclined to panic and are unable to think or learn effectively. The mental state of the horse is implicitly linked to the posture of the horse. Therefore, when training the horse, the trainer must be sensitive to the posture of the horse. The posture both indicates and influences the horses current mental state.

To change the horses mental state from flight mode to relaxed, the trainer can set the horse up in a relaxed posture. Once the horse is in a relaxed posture their brain can slow down and relax too, as the parasympathetic nervous system takes over from the sympathetic. Yes, you guessed it! The key to achieving a relaxed posture with minimal stress lies in the yield to poll pressure. When the head is lowered the muscles signal to the horse they are no longer in a state of threat. When done properly the neck muscles relax and the hind end muscles engage. Teach the horse to give to poll pressure and you plant the seed to go on and teach your horse to assume the relaxed posture when confronted with a scary stimulus, rather than go into flight mode.

Yielding For Soundness

Poll pain is incredibly common in all horses, not only riding horses. This is because the poll is one of the three major joint junctions in the horses body. Horses who are in flight mode hold so much tension in the poll due to their forehand movement. A horse carrying a lot of neck tension due to their movement will get a sore poll. The sore poll will then prevent the horse from learning to move correctly. It’s a vicious cycle for the horse and prevention is better than cure. Therefore, teaching a horse to yield to poll pressure is important for horses to remain sound and happy for riding. A horse relaxed in their neck and using their back end to propel movement is much less likely to get a sore poll, and the associated behavioural and training problems that go along with it.

To see yielding to poll pressure in action watch the video here

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