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By now many, if not all, of you will have come across the pessoa training system. Whether it been used by someone you know or a photo/video on Facebook. It has been viewed as the latest ‘fad’ with many people on the fence about whether it really does the horse any good. Although there are now many brands and variations of Pessoa, it was originally invented by the show jumper Nelson Pessoa. He invented it top help the horse build topline and encourage it to find its own balance.
How does the Pessoa training system work?
As with most training aids, the Pessoa uses pressure and release to help the horse learn how they should carry themselves. This in turn means they can build up the correct muscle and get stronger. The lines attaching to the bit encourage the horse into the correct frame and the line behind them encourages them to bring their back end under them. Many physios recommend working horses in a Pessoa, especially over poles. It can do them a world of good.
When the horse is in the correct position the lines should be loose with plenty of slack. But when they move out of that position, the lines tighten and apply some pressure to the bit. As soon as they return to the correct position this pressure is released. This release is often quicker than a rider releasing the pressure so horses can learn where they should be quicker in a Pessoa than with a rider. Plus, without the weight of a rider, it can often be easier to maintain this position in a Pessoa.
Why are people put off using a Pessoa?
The Pessoa seems to be a bit like Marmite, people either love it or they hate it. I think part of the problem is that, like all training aids, if it isn’t used correctly it can create more problems than it helps. How complicated it appears to put on possibly scares a few people off it, instead going for slightly simpler options like EquiAmi. But there are so many fantastic how to videos and guides, that I think anyone can quickly learn how to use the Pessoa.
How to use a Pessoa
It doesn’t matter how established your horse is, when using the Pessoa for the first time you should always think “go back to basics.” This is because the Pessoa is so effective and not using it correctly can make your horse stiff or sore, or teach them to carry themselves incorrectly.
The Pessoa makes them work quite hard, so I like to give them a bit of a warm up before putting it on. This could just be 5mins of walk and trot on both reins. Once they have worn the Pessoa a few times, I will put the Pessoa on for the warm up, but leave the bit clips unattached.
The first time you use the Pessoa it will take a bit of fiddling with. You will need to adjust all the strap lengths. The breeching strap (the one what goes around the bum) should rest a little above the hocks and shouldn’t be too tight. It is just there as a little reminder not to leave their legs behind. Some horses might buck the first time you work them with this as they don’t know what it is, but they soon realise it’s not a monster.
The two straps attaching to the bit need to be the same length. If they aren’t the same length then you are teaching your horse to be slightly bent to one side. Since I only use the Pessoa on Scottie, once I have measured out the lines I usually put some tape on them to help prevent any slipping. Your lines shouldn’t be tight. You aren’t forcing them into a position!
The most important thing to remember when using the Pessoa is to introduce it slowly. Start it loose to allow the horse to get use to it. Gradually tighten it so that the horse has to work lower or rounder to release the pressure. For the first few sessions I would stay in walk, especially if the horse has very little topline. Keep sessions short and as the horse builds muscle you can increase the time working in the Pessoa and shorten the line.
Different Pessoa training system positions
There are several different positions you can use with a Pessoa. Each position puts the horse in a slightly different frame and has different benefits.
Between the legs
The first position of the Pessoa is the most common and is what you should use at the start. This position encourages the horse to work long and low, which is important for training a horse to carry themselves. In lower level dressage the judge is looking for a long and low outline. This is the position I always use for Scottie, I have never had a need to move up a position.
The next position up is to clip the lines roughly at girth level. This is a similar position you would attach side reins to. Many people use the same loop they thread the line through. If your horse works really well long and low but you want to lift their frame slightly you might want to try this position.
The final position is clipping higher up the roller, creating a much more upright frame. I personally would only ever use this position on very established horses working at quite a high level. It just isn’t needed for most horses.
How often should you use a Pessoa training system?
How often you use a Pessoa really depends on how much work your horse is doing. For your typical horse in light work schooling 2-4 times a week, I would suggest once or twice a week is plenty. Working in a Pessoa is hard work, especially if they aren’t used to it.
Can you canter a horse in a Pessoa?
Yes. I wouldn’t canter them straight away, instead wait until they are happy in trot. But there is no reason why you can’t canter in a Pessoa, in fact it can be great for their canter.
Common problems using a Pessoa
Training horses is not a one size fits all. While I love the Pessoa and genuinely believe it did Scottie a world of good, it won’t work for every horse. Common problems I have heard about are that horses learn to lean on the pessoa, and therefore are unable to carry themselves in the ‘correct’ position. Another is that since the breaching strap is connected to the bit, that the hind end interferes with the mouth. An interesting opinion from one of my lecturers was that he believed the problem with the pessoa is that it is too effective. Meaning that the horse soon learns that it has to work a certain way and that the muscles can become sore if too much work is done too soon.
Other problems seem to relate to the owner not using the pessoa correctly, causing horses to work in false outlines, building incorrect muscle or simply not having any affect. However, I do not feel the benefits and problems of a good training aid can not be judged on those using it incorrectly.
My Pessoa training system review
I genuinely believe that the Pessoa training system was a game changer for Scottie. When I first got him he had virtually no topline, didn’t work in an outline, struggled to find balance on the lunge and just generally needed a lot of work. I started him in a Pessoa quite early on. At the start it was very loose and we only walked in it, unclipping it again before we did our trot work. Once we mastered the walk, we started trotting in it and I actually found he was calmer on the lunge for being slightly restrained. I do think he found a bit of comfort in it. He was soon trotting beautifully in an outline.
I was always of the mindset of if he can’t carry himself in an outline in the Pessoa, he can’t carry himself in an outline with me sat on his back. So for me, I aimed to always be a step ahead in our lunging than we were under saddle. When riding I focused on straightness and rhythm. Once he was working in an outline in walk consistently in the Pessoa, then I would start asking for an outline under saddle. Then once he started working consistently in trot in the Pessoa, then I would start asking under saddle.
Canter was always our hardest gait to master. He was unbalanced and favoured one leg. He would always hollow so much in canter. While I still worked on improving the canter under saddle, I saw results on the lunge first. Not only did he pick up canter leads more consistently on the lunge, but with the Pessoa he also started to drop and round. After he started to build up on the lunge, he also started to show this under saddle.
I am not one for cutting corners and lots of gadgets. But I don’t think Scottie would have achieved half as much as he did without his Pessoa. I didn’t use it to strap him down and force him into moving correctly. But I used it to show him how he should carry himself and took my weight off his back to make it easier for him. Yes you can teach a horse to work in an outline purely from riding. But for a horse with virtually no topline and experience of working correctly, the added weight of the rider can just make it harder for them. If I ever get a second ex racehorse I plan on using the Pessoa in a similar way to build them up slowly.