When to Release

I think one of the greatest skills to master when working with horses is finding the precise moment to release.  I believe horses learn most from the actual release, not the pressure or cue. It’s that moment when they are provided comfort or relaxation in an exercise that the real lesson sinks in.  Finding the exact moment to release in any exercise is a learnt skill, one that is often learnt through years and years of trials and tribulations but once learnt is hard to forget. 

I would define ‘release’ as when the rider offers a softening or change after they can feel the physical change in their horse within any given exercise. For the release to be an effective teaching tool it has to be offered at the precise moment the horse changes or completes the exercise.  There is a ‘one second rule’ we apply at our clinics, within one second of your horse trying or making a positive change, we must release. I believe any later than that and we run the risk of muddying the waters and confusing the horse.  However, this is a fluid process, not fixed and can be different for every horse.  Yes, outcomes can be defined in horse training, but there is a series of release points or incremental improvements that a horse has to work through before achieving that outcome, its a shifting scale.

I try to remind my students that their focus needs to remain on the long term approach of horse training.  They have months and years, not days and weeks to achieve results.  I find this long term perspective creates the right mindset in the human to reward incremental improvements in their horse as opposed to getting frustrated with the lack of progress on a daily basis.  

I believe the easiest way to learn when to release and what change is needed is to feel and reward my horse, under direct instruction.  In my own personal situation, my teachers would be watching me working away at a certain exercise and they would remark when they saw an improvement or change in the horse.  This gave me a better understanding of what it felt like under saddle to experience the change in my horse.  I have since tried to replicate this for all of my students.  I talk them through exercises to build their confidence and allow them to establish the feel and timing, to apply the release and effectively teach their horse.   Another way that really expedited my feel and timing was when I got to hop on my mentors horse, after he was finished.  He would often watch me struggling through exercises on some of my horses in training and at the end of the day say “here son, just hop on this one for a second”.  Then instantly, I was completely humbled, seriously. These moments were some of my greatest lessons, but also what felt like my biggest setbacks.  My mentors horses were so soft, so responsive, so willing, with no hesitation or sticky points, just willingness.  Ultimately, these experiences at the time dented my confidence (although in hindsight, I needed that a bit as a horse trainer in my mid 20’s, when my EGO was the size of Texas!). They also gave me a huge amount of inspiration and really showed me how much I still had to learn and practice.  So practise I did! When I was training full time I used to have lights set up at every facility possible.  After dinner, I would save a few horses for the night session and head down to the arena and keep practising. These moments for me as a horseman made me more committed and extremely determined.  You know you have well and truly caught the horse training bug, when you’re up at 6am working horses all day and then save 3-4 more horses for after dinner at night time, just so you can practice some more!   

Back to the topic at hand.  The only way to get better at feel and timing is to work with trainers or associates, who can observe you and offer their advice on when they see a rewardable change in your horse. I have been lucky to be able to provide this third party view, not only to my clinic attendees but also to my EH mentoring students.  They send me videos and we review them on conference calls and I explain to them when and why I would have released at certain moments. It’s pretty amazing what we can do with technology these days!  We recently had an EH members conference call (in case you missed it, we had people joining the call from from the UK, NZ and Australia) It is such a great way to have so many people come together, supporting each other in their journeys.  At the end of the day so many of us have the same issues and challenges and to support one another and for me to be able to support you, not matter where you are in the world, is invaluable!  Keep an eye out for the next one, it’s going to be a favourite topic of mine and my students – FEAR! (How we can move past it!)

On a final note – There is no substitute for time in the saddle, practising, refining and perfecting when to release.  

Thank you for reading and I hope this helps you on your journey!


This is me working a young horse searching for the release at the NZ Dressage Academy December, 2018

Justin Colquhoun

Hi There! I’m Justin Colquhoun. I founded Elite Horsemanship out of a dream to make real and effective horsemanship available to anyone at any level in the horse industry.