Calming Signals and Pressure.

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.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro
Planning our 2019 clinic schedule now. Email me at ambfarm@gmail.com for details.

37 comments

  1. “Words are the door that our actions walk through.” Another insightful and brilliant blog, thank you, Anna! Your words have changed my horsemanship.

  2. Good article-makes one think. I also think that much of what we feel or do is a reaction to the particular horse we are working with. I am the very lucky owner of a wonderful, willing, well-trained horse who seems only too happy to do what I ask of him. However, the horse I had before was not like him. She fought me on just about everything and a ride that started out well-calm, willing horse-could change in a nanosecond to an all out battle and I wasn’t able, after 4 1/2 years, to figure out what set her off. My philosophy with horses has always been one of caring, no whips or spurs, ‘big bits’, no yelling, just trying to stay calm and work through the misbehaviors but, with her, it didn’t work. I worked with several different trainers & clinicians, sometimes sending her for several weeks to a trainer, extensive vet checks, saddle fit, bridle & bit checks but to no avail. I ended up having my trainer sell her to another trainer and they love her, think she ‘walks on water’ and they’re very happy with her. I feel that because we may not know what experiences the horse had before they came to us-bad training or lack of it, intimidation, or even the wrong ‘fit’, sometimes the problem(s) outweigh the solutions. In my instance, selling this horse and getting another horse was the best outcome for all.

    • I totally agree, Susan. Each horse is a “perfect storm” of individuality. We need to work at it, which you did. Then we might need to give another a chance, for the good of the horse. I applaud your decision and thanks for the heartfelt comment.

  3. You are NOT a killjoy about pressure. This is absolutely important to talk about! I have been obsessed with this question for a year now, maybe longer and have still not come to a concrete answer. But that’s probably good! Looking forward to your clinic this weekend and hope to learn more that will help me in this searching. Thank you!

  4. “…the only way to not use pressure is to stay in the house.” This is so true even when it comes to feeding time…

  5. See you on Sunday, Anna! With other commitments already in place by the time I heard about your clinics, the best I can do is audit Sunday and part of Tuesday.

  6. Love your article. When I was working with race horses most of them came from stables that had used the lion trainer approach training method. The horses were stressed needless to say and I was a newbie. Calm, quiet presence was the only way I could choose.. It worked time and time again. Our horses taught me so much every day.

  7. I always wondered about what trainers have meant over the years about “giving to pressure.” That was NEVER my experience with horses. They lean into it, resist it, just like we do. Your article offers an absolutely transformational way of looking at horses, ourselves, and the way we walk in the world. “Words are the door our actions walk through.” Brilliant and beautiful. Thank you.

    • I have just received a rescue, a free-roaming mare whose very little ‘training’ with humans was horsemanship halter training. What she learned was that if you lean hard enough on the human, eventually they’ll back off if only because they lose thier balance. Without a halter on, she responds to a fingertip touch. Why anyone would work so persistently to teach such counterproductive behavior genuinely baffles me.

      • I have a feeling I know where this behavior came from, as a reaction and not a trained behavior… your right though. Whoever worked with her was persistently counter productive…. Thanks for sharing, Saraanon

  8. This is, as all your writing, both beautiful and wise. Ithink you go to the deeper level of understanding what a horse really is. Ihave been surrounded by good horse people who are kinder and more sensitive than most, but who tell me things that do not fit with either who I am or what I see in horses. I had a horse . He had once been on the track and then ridden in hack classes. His sensitivity became clear and he taught me so much about partnership and the need for relaxation and trust. I was told he needed to respect me. I was told to hold him with firm contact til he “got it” and released his neck. He would soon get the idea. Problem was he had a weak pencil thin neck and a habit of going behind the bit and chomping and exploding unpredictably. So… on a long rein which took a lot of courage and a smoother bit we both gained understanding and balance and his neck strengthened and re coordinated with his body and we began to go well together. He is no longer with me as he broke his leg having fun in the paddock with his horse friends, zooming around. My next horse was safe and stoic about his delicate poll and never misbehaved, just held back. So I rode him bitless and he shook his neck out and relaxed and his eyes softened. He became looser and happier and more alive. From him I learned calming signals. They mostly came out at bridling time: looking away, moving his jaw around, open- mouthed.
    I now see that I have much more to learn. Seeing horses as equally sensitive is very helpful. They have to know that we will not willingly harm them and that we hear their language and will cause them to feel better. Being a leader and partner without domination is my goal I am learning to be clear and rassertive while causing no alarm. . I think it will take a lifetime.

  9. Love your ideas and expression of the things that resonate with me. The haltering for instance. An idea that came from another very wise person, Elaine Coxon, is that we can offer our horses a “handshake” when we go to meet them at the barn or in the field – by first getting their permission to approach and touch them.
    I have been writing my own horse blog for a while now, and I can see the change of mindset as the learning takes place over time – coming from the dark ages into the light 🙂

  10. My OTTB, gone four years now, would always just stuff his nose in the halter I held out for him. No idea why. Same for the bridle. He would fish around for the bit, then grab it. Don’t know if he was in a hurry to get the process over with, or in a hurry to get the next process (the ride) started…

    My current horse does the same thing with the halter, but with her, I hold it out and say “halter”, then she goes looking for it. However, all the time, whether in a stall or in the pasture, she is looking out to who knows where, her attention completely in some other world, while she noses herself into the halter. Maybe just a boss mare thing? As in, I know what you’re up to lady, but although YOU don’t know it, I’m still in charge?

    Human that I am, I have no idea if this has, or had, anything to do with pressure. Or lack of it.

    • Alli, I’m not going to make a guess about this without seeing her for myself. I usually see different nuance. I will say two things. The ones who shove their way in quickly… just what you said. They want to get it over with. I’d go slow and breathe. The new one isn’t looking a who knows what, she is looking away, a calming signal (doesn’t sound boss mare to me). I’d go slow and breath. Who knows what is really happening, but the answer is the same… In haltering it isn’t a question of if we can do it, but rather can there be less anxiety. Thanks, Alli. Keep listening…:)

  11. Thank you so much for this . I have learned( and teach) that horses learn best from the release of pressure. Release them to show them that they’re doing the right thing.When they try , you release. Approach and retreat. The retreat is the thing that makes the next approach possible. I love the way you write. Best, Virginia

  12. I enjoyed your article on pressure. I often tell students when a horse is very tense and resistant to offer their hand to the horse and see if they relax to the removal of physical pressure. They need to give the horse a chance to respond in a positive manner or a “good try”. This is so contrary to what they were taught; driving the horse into a holding stiff hand. I was always taught to ride with a relaxed arm and hand and to offer that softness to the horse. Often the tension and resistance comes from riding the front end of the horse and not taking the time to relax, soften and supple the horse. Listening to the horse is so important. Sometimes knowing when to stop and dismount is the best thing for the horse. Too many people feel that they have to have the horse obedient and submissive or they have to repeat a movement until they are satisfied or they have to ride for “X” amount of time. Sometimes you accomplish something in 15 minutes. There is nothing to stop a rider from ending their “schooling” early when the horse shows its’ understanding of the riders aides or when the horse is frustrated, anxious, lacking confidence and the apparent inability to please the rider occurs. There is always tomorrow. There should not be a time limit as to when the horse will master a movement or level.
    Even human students are taught many concepts and skills by a form of pressure. Teacher and student both want to succeed. Smart teacher knows every student learns at their own pace. Smart teachers know that sometimes you have to teach concepts and skills in small increments and mini reteaching segments. Sounds like what a rider should consider.

    • Great comment, Kathleen. I agree and would add that our instinct is to fight, we’re a stubborn species and that on top of poor training methods can be hard on horses!

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