Are pressure halters and thin rope halters good or bad? Pressure halters are just collections of webbing, buckles, brass fittings or plastic they are not inherently good or bad. That said people immediately leap to the conclusion that it is the hands that hold them that determine their label. I personally don’t think it is anything to with the hands that hold them that makes them good or bad. For me it is the brain that operates the hands that counts. What I mean is that the perception of the human being involved will determine whether they see pressure halters as good or bad not whether they use them well or badly.
These individual perceptions are determined by personal beliefs about the true nature of horses, how we believe they should be trained or what our personal training ethics are.
If our beliefs are that a horse’s nose is extremely sensitive and that concentrated pressure in this area is unnecessary to communicate with them, and likely to be painful or even just uncomfortable and prevents them from expressing their natural behaviour then we will view any use of the pressure halter as unacceptable. If our view is that it is acceptable to use pressure or pain on the nose of horse to train them, or that due to constraints we have to get the work done as fast as possible, or the horse has to be safe and therefore using pressure in this way is justified, then we will say the pressure halter is a good thing.
The mere mention of pain will cause people to focus on the pressure that is applied and, pressure halter advocates immediately defend their use of the pressure type halter by saying “well I can be really light with a pressure halter” “ pressure halters give me better timing, and are clearer for the horse because the pressure is more concentrated.” What is interesting is that pressure is only a small part of the learning process what is more important to learning is the timing of the release of pressure. A growing awareness of the principles of negative reinforcement has meant horse handlers now have a greater understanding of the importance of the release of pressure during horse training. This release of pressure is what communicates to the horse how to remove or avoid the pressure in future similar situations. This is the crucial factor that everyone knows, but tends to under play in the pressure halter debate, had someone thought about it more carefully perhaps the term release halter ™ would have added more marketing hype to the product.
My personal feeling is that we simply don’t know how sensitive a horse’s nose or poll are. We don’t know how a horse perceives pain or if there are differences in the perceptions of individuals. By relaxing and controlling my thoughts I can personally have the dentist drill my teeth for a filing without any anaesthetic but for other people that would be unbearably painful, is it not plausible that similar variances exist in equines? People will again justify the use of a pressure halter by saying it isn’t pain it is just discomfort or pressure, personally I don’t want to take the risk that I might be using pain to train.
I imagine if I was teaching a simple behaviour to a child, such as shoelace tying I could teach them using a little bit of pressure, now obviously the best way to teach this behaviour is to use reward and praise, which is on the whole what we do. Funny how we use so much positive reinforcement with young children, while they learn to crawl, walk, talk and become potty trained but chose to use negative reinforcement and punishment in so much of the rest of their lives, but that’s a different article. Anyway, say I choose to use the pressure caused by gently prodding the child with a drawing pin and releasing this pressure when they make some right move. I can justify my method by saying well I am very light with my drawing pin and it is not as bad as hitting them and it certainly is very clear when I release the pin. That pressure will be perceived differently by each child and could even distract the child from learning and could even lead to some fear or breakdown of our relationship with the child if they are particularly sensitive. Somehow in this context perhaps this argument for only light pressure does not hold up so well. I know it is an absurd illustration and that is exactly why I use it. When I know a gentler more effective way of training exists, that does not have the potential pitfalls is it not ethically right to avoid using the drawing pin?
Everyone accepts that the pressure exerted from a pressure or a rope halter is greater from the same pressure on a flat head collar. It has to be, if we apply the same amount of pressure to both, the pressure is spread over the area in contact with the horse’s nose, so the wider the area, the less the pressure, the narrower the area the more pressure per square centimetre, and this is not taking into account the closing or restricting nature of some pressure halters.
It seems to me this might be why people claim their communication with the horse is clearer with the horse if they use the pressure halter lightly, because as I have previously said it is the release of pressure that communicates with the horse, and the greater the pressure the more the horse will want a release from it. What happens is the horse makes a choice, they want to avoid the pressure they feel on their poll or nose and therefore they choose a different set of actions, and this choice is magnified by the application of higher levels of pressure. A pressure halter puts on say, 10 on the applied pressure scale, whatever that might mean in real terms does not matter, just that the light applied pressure to be a reading of 10 on a scale that could range between 10 and a 1000, the harder you pull the higher up the scale we go. When the pressure is released and the applied pressure goes to zero. So we have pressure release cycle that goes ten- zero, ten – zero, ten – zero. There is big difference in the horse between 10 and zero which is what causes them to choose between pressure and no pressure. The scale starts at ten as even the lightest touch on the rope has to scientifically exert more pressure than a flat head collar with the same pull.
With a flat head collar we might be putting on a pressure of 2, on a scale of 1 to 500. Again the release cycle pattern we get is, two – zero, two – zero. So this lower level of pressure is not as convincing to the horse that they have to modify their behaviour to avoid it. This is why pressure halter and rope halters work, there is the greater difference between even the lightest pressure and the release, than there is with a flat head collar. Yes you can put on a considerable amount of pressure with a flat head collar too, but it will never be a severe as a pressure halter at the same level of pull applied to the rope.
We accept that using a thinner bit causes more pressure and discomfort to the mouth compared to a wider rounder bit, and most horse trainers who consider themselves emphatic or natural would hopefully not advocate the use of a thinner harsher bit to solve a ridden problem.
If a horse is fearful of the trailer or kicks because it hurts to pick up their feet, obviously as the pressure goes to ten on the scale the horse is more motivated to seek no pressure. If they do the required behaviour and the pressure comes off the desire to seek that release will have to override their fear or pain or excitement which already exists. For that to happen you have to believe that the discomfort felt by the horse is quite considerable. I have seen a horse that had not loaded for 15 years, ridden 25 miles to a demonstration load using a pressure halter in under 15 minutes. Given that in 15 years everyone and their dog is likely to have tried to load the animal and failed, to me this demonstrates the higher level of force that a pressure halter can apply albeit at a much higher level of force on the rope. To cause the horse to choose to deal with the terror of the trailer and years of fearful experiences rather than feel the pressure on their poll and nose must surely show how forceful pressure halters can be. Imagine your own fear or phobia and how much pressure would be required to make you pick up the spider or snake or perhaps climb to the top of a ladder within 15 minutes? I know we can argue it was in the best interests of the horse in case they ever needed to go to the vet, I am not at this point saying it was right or wrong only that the pressure applied must have been considerable for the horse to choose the trailer.
The flat head collar used lightly is a choice between zero and two that’s not a major discomfort compared to the choice between ten and zero so the horse will perhaps choose to ignore the pressure, at this lower level they can deal with it and so seeking the release is not so motivating for the horse to change their behaviour as it does not over ride their fear or pain.
However, my argument is this; the pressure halter interferes with our thinking and our learning. The pressure halter becomes for many people the one solution to ten problems. I think they stop us from asking the two most important questions, why and how. Why is my horse behaving this way and how can I best help him to learn a more suitable behaviour. It is possible to justify the use of the pressure halter because “the horse has to be safe, we don’t have the time, they are dangerous without it” and if that is an individual’s choice that is up to them. However, I don’t what to hear owners keep saying “oh in the real world….” This is just an outdated defence, we create our world and, we choose what is acceptable and what is not so when enough people choose that force in not acceptable the real world changes.
For me personally, I never say never, if it was purely in the best interests of the horse, such as emergency veterinary treatment, that a pressure halter is something I might consider with great hesitation if it was impossible to control the horse or sedate them and other options had failed first, but only if it was best for the horse not because it was easiest for me.
I also think pressure halters stop us developing our own skills as a horse person and our horses’ potential. For me I want to develop lightness based on not being able to force the horse to seek the release of pressure but rather allowing it to learn they can deal with the situation and to build their confidence while developing problem solving abilities. People talk about willingness and wanting their horse to want to be with them. This willingness is difficult to achieve if the choice is between discomfort and no release. They use pressure heavily and then get lighter not accepting the horse is quite capable of understanding that if they do not respond to lightness they will feel increased pressure, and so are still in fact responding, all be it psychologically, to the original heavy pressure that conditioned the response.
If trainers want to use pressure halters that choice is theirs, I would prefer for the sake of horses they didn’t, but it is the choice of the individual based on their ethical beliefs. However, at least people should be honest about the how and why pressure type halters work. If pressure halters didn’t apply more pressure than a flat head collar at the same contact, pressure halters would be no more effective than a flat head collar. People justify their use of a pressure halter by saying they use it lightly, and when I say ten on the pressure scale that is lightly but it is still not as light as two on the scale. Using a flat head collar is not an excuse to pull harder because it doesn’t hurt the horse much, putting more pressure on with a flat head collar is also destructive to lightness.
It is important for me to give any horse I work with options, and that the motivation or persuasion I use to overcome fears and problems actually relies on positive reinforcement or the minimum pressure I can use with a flat head collar which will be less than a pressure halter. I prefer to use a flat head collar because I think it increases the choices between pressure and no pressure. More than that having taken away the element of increasing pressure the trainer develops a great sense of timing to apply the lightest pressure, and we do horses a disservice if we think they can not feel the change in pressure between two and zero on our imaginary scale. Further more, not using pressure increases the trainers imagination and their reliance on their ability to shape behaviour. With less force we have to invent smaller steps which our animal will find easier to achieve while working towards the desired goal. This process of successful shaping is what creates a relationship, confidence and trust and ultimately to safety and willingness. We shouldn’t be putting our horses in situations where they react so big trainers justify the use of a pressure halter for control.
I am not saying if you use a pressure halter you are not a good trainer, I am saying that I don’t think the regular use of pressure halters encourages trainers to be as light as they can be and I think that reliance on the pressure halter to solve equine problems such as leading and loading stops the trainer from thinking to their full potential. I think if we use a pressure halter it can lead to the application of the law of the hammer – “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” the routine use of pressure halters stops trainers using their imagination and creative abilities to find more positive solutions to problems. When we know we can load the horse with the pressure halter why explore any other possibilities?
If a trainer feels the need to use a pressure halter because of the situation they find themselves in that is their choice but they shouldn’t pretend it is ok because they only use it lightly and it isn’t really causing any discomfort. The reason pressure halters work is because they cause more discomfort or potential pain however you measure and categorise that, than a flat head collar causes when used at the same level.
“The Dog Whisperer” who is currently starting a UK tour is under massive investigation by leading welfare organisations for the adverse training methods he is reported to use, including such items as pronged collars. Yet pressure halters, whips and spurs are used in full view of every welfare organisation and apparently are acceptable forms of training for equines. Yet if I started training dogs using a whip or perhaps a spur device or a pressure halter with brass studs on, I suspect there would be an immediate investigation and outcry. Why do we treat the two species so differently? Ignorance is no longer a defence.
I don’t think for one moment the vast majority of advocates of pressure halters would endorse the use of whips, spurs and harsher bits as a solution to problems and I think that is because the marketing of the pressure halter has been such that it has been sold as a tool that if used effectively is very quick and therefore the horse “teaches himself.” The name given to some pressure halters has even been mistaken for being nice to our horses, rather than making our horse be nice!
I believe that pressure and thin rope halters are a barrier to more ethical training for equines and so I want to call on trainers around the world to stop using such equipment as routine and prove that their methods work when they don’t have the option to apply this level or type of pressure to the nose, if it is about the horse, about good timing about being natural and about learning then this shouldn’t be a problem should it?
The very desire to only use pressure halters lightly indicates people want the best for their horses and I think the best for a horse is not a pressure halter but for a horse to have choices, with a trainer who has soft open hands, a creative imagination and the ability to shape behaviour effectively while thinking with the horse’s brain not their own.
By Ben Hart
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