This is a simple philosophy but is another vital skill to master if you are to communicate effectively with, and thus train, your horse. A lot is written and said about pressure and release, some very useful.... and some baffling! We'll keep it simple.
Every horse needs to be taught what you expect
All horses, to a greater or lesser extent, move towards pressure until someone teaches them otherwise. Some horses are naturally very pushy - bargy even - and some wouldn’t dream of getting in the way. But none are born knowing that when you push on them to move over (or go backwards) that is what should happen. The amazing thing about pressure and release is that once the horse understands the concept they will constantly look for the release - even if it's the first time they've been asked for that particular response.
So, pressure can be from:
your hand (touching the horse or via a halter, lead or rein)
from your leg (or both legs)
from your seat, or even from
your attitude (body language).
How much pressure?
The amount of pressure should be firm enough to get a response but as little as possible to achieve that response. Once the horse STARTS to respond (in the case of backing up that may be just a shift of the weight backwards towards the hindquarters) you need to release the pressure (cue) immediately. In other words as soon as the horse THOUGHT about the response then you must cease the cue. Once the movement has happened it is too late. Remember...
thought of response...
This is where your feel and timing is really tested. Develop your feel - knowing what' s happening even before it's apparent to any onlooker - and your timing - says 'yes' to the horse exactly as his brain is sending the desired messages down the nerves to the muscles.
This is illustrated below with Skooter. Here Judith is asking Skooter to give to pressure and "follow the rope" until she's completed a 180 degree turn. The rope applies very light pressure on her face, asking her to move her nose to the right, and for her feet to follow. (This is a useful exercise from the ground as it relates to the use of the direct rein under saddle.) At the instant she begins to respond, Judith releases the pressure and allows Skooter to complete the manoeuvre with freedom.
Remember that the ultimate release from pressure is the end of the lesson. Getting off your horse, loosening the cinch and spending a few minutes quietly together before you leave the arena is actually one of the strongest messages you can give your horse. If you quit on the best part of the schooling session (having achieved something positive) that is what you will bring into the next session.