Pressure. Even the Word Makes My Head Explode.
Remember that circus old-time act with lions and tigers? We were supposed to think the lion tamer was courageous and making the cats do tricks was a kind of measure of his manhood. He cracked his whip loud, sometimes even holding a chair, and the cat did the trick, snarling the whole time, his ears pinned flat, and a huge paw batting toward the lion tamer. Sometimes there was an extra back-talk snarl after the trick and the lion tamer would put the big cat in his place with an extra crack of the whip for intimidation. Not sure if it was for the lion or inquisitive girls.
It was probably the Ed Sullivan Show on a black and white TV where I first saw it. My father was a huge fan of fear-based respect and approved of lion tamers. I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid watching who thought it looked like torture.
So, when the man in the audience asked in a friendly voice if I trained using pressure, I immediately felt… pressured! I flashed on lion tamers, seized up inside, and evaded the question. I talked about breath and intention instead.
Have you ever felt like a cornered animal? Training with threats or intimidation is something we all understand. No trainer openly admits that they train with cruelty and abuse, but would horses agree?
I admit to being a little compulsive about word choice. Words are the door that our actions walk through. As I held my breath and pawed around for the answer to his question, I searched for a better way to say it. Better semantics. But back to the man’s question, yes, I train with pressure. I truly hate that word.
When talking about calming signals, I use the words stress or anxiety to describe equine body language. If you pay close attention, most horses express some anxiety when we halter them by looking away, narrowing eyes, freezing. Most commonly, horses hold their breath or breathe shallowly until we’re done. Afterward, they might release some anxiety by taking a deep breath or licking.
Pressure is the energy that creates the calming signal.
If someone stands quietly next to a horse’s shoulder, exhales, and asks for his eye by looking at it, that must count as pressure in the strictest sense. That was the point of the man’s question. By this prickly definition, the only way to not use pressure is to stay in the house.
Some of a horse’s calming signals are small and some are the equivalent of screaming bloody murder, like the old-time lion act. We are all communicating pressure somewhere on that whisper-to-a-yell continuum. Pressure and anxiety are Siamese twins, attached like cause-and-effect, ask-and-release.
Do horses feel pressure when we aren’t there? Of course, for a start, there are herd dynamics, season change, hormonal swings, predators, sourcing food and water, and more than we understand, chronic pain. Domestic horses have a few more on top of that, living in confinement.
Do we feel pressure when we aren’t around horses? Of course, peer pressure, self-criticism, anticipatory grieving, and the pressure above all others; we have the big fat stinky love for horses. Sometimes we can barely breathe for loving them. How many times do we laugh and shake our heads at our inexplicable behaviors? (Human calming signal.)
All of this before riding, before the pressure of a saddle that might not fit perfectly, a girth pulled extra tight in a vulnerable place, the weight of a bit, metal on bone, the threat of control on a vulnerable joint before the hands are even on the reins.
How much of the pressure that horses feel do we take for granted? How often do we minimize the pressure we feel emotionally about horses?
One of the most common things people tell me is their horse is really sensitive. No, really very sensitive. Then they might explain a particular extreme behavior that I routinely hear about.
For the record, some horses are not more sensitive than others. Some shut down to escape pressure and some react, but beyond behavior, horses all have the same nervous system. They are beautifully sensitive animals.
Why am I such a killjoy about pressure?
Horses don’t naturally give to pressure. Their natural instinct is to lean into it. One example: Horses don’t pull on the reins by themselves, they do it in response to the pressure of our hands. Then, because humans don’t naturally give to pressure either, we respond by pulling back, reacting to their pull and now it doesn’t matter who started it. Some of us will pick a fight then, we might go to a stronger bit, or some might silently carry a grudge and just let our hands get heavier without really noticing. Resistance trains resistance.
It’s a tug of war, pressure on both sides, but it is also an instinct for both of our species. We’re too alike in our responses. That’s important to remember. Some of us want to dominate but most of us react before we know we have a choice. We grab before we think but expect horses to behave better.
Horsemanship is usually based on the process of teaching horses to give to pressure; to lay down their instinct, or more likely lock it up inside, and then do what we want. We’re taught to hold steady pressure until they do the behavior, and then quit asking. Good boy.
What if we have it backward? What if instead of pressure, we use release to train. Contrary to our instincts and training, what if we hold awareness of potential pressure, and don’t respond in like. In the rein example, when we feel an ounce of his weight on the rein, we release an inch or two. Can we teach horses we’re flexible about contact? Fluid rather than resistant? Conversational rather than dictatorial?
We can hate the lion tamer approach, prefer affirmative training, but it isn’t just about the method of training. It must be the constant exhausting awareness that our horses are incredibly sensitive, even the quiet ones. Rather than desensitizing them, we should be the ones wrestling with our instincts. Isn’t that what true “Less is More” means?
Treading lightly, I say I train with encouragement, knowing that’s a kind of pressure, too.