I’ve noticed that the use of pressure in horsemanship can be a subject that people feel quite passionately about. There is a spectrum of philosophies about using pressure that vary from using little/no pressure (often with a desire to make the horse feel more comfortable) to using strong pressure (often with a focus on obedience). One of the foundational principles of horsemanship that I’ve observed over the years is that we feel more at peace when we exist in balance, so my heart goes out to people who feel a bit stuck or polarized due to negative experiences with the application of pressure. As a result, I want to share my thoughts on how I understand pressure and what to do in specific moments when horses feel overwhelmed.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the horse’s preferred choice to run from pressure under stress is deeply embedded in their biology. When something startles or threatens a horse, the flight, flight or freeze response of the horse’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is immediate and involuntary. At this point, a horse is no longer able to think; the release of stress hormones reduces blood flow to the problem-solving centre of the brain and prepares the horse’s body to react in whatever way it needs to in order to survive. This is the point in your ride when your horse might buck, bolt, run off or freeze and tune you out. Horses have a much smaller problem-solving centre in the brain compared to humans so switching from a calm thinking state to a flight reaction happens very quickly for horses!
When we are dealing with a horse that is fearful, the first thing we need to do is return them to a state of calm where they can think. When the horse feels afraid, it is not helpful to add more pressure, fixate on completing the exercise or become angry about the horse’s lack of responsiveness. In a state of fear, your horse is not able to learn what you are asking of them but they are learning what they can expect from you when they feel scared. If your horse feels like you are not an advocate for their safety when they feel afraid, your presence starts to promote their fear and a variety of secondary problems arise. Therefore, I believe it is crucial that when a horse feels overstimulated and scared, we must pause what we are doing, back off, slow it down, and restart so that the horse’s nervous system can reset (back to a parasympathetic state). My choice to pause in these moments is not about technique – it’s about science and the knowledge that a scared brain doesn’t learn or think well, it merely reacts.
Once a horse is calm again, the next step is to help them understand how to control pressure in a new way. My horses work for a living and encounter many different pressures when working cattle so it’s really important to me that they believe in themselves and feel capable of problem-solving when stress or pressures come up. Over the years, I have found that horses don’t really care how they control pressure but the key is that they need to feel like they are able to. Horses will naturally choose to take care of themselves by running away but my goal is to teach my horses to consider me as a partner and control pressure in a relational way by accepting my help and trusting my ability to understand things in the world that don’t make sense to them. At its core, relational horsemanship is about building a partnership by meeting the horse’s needs and empowering them to feel strong when they belong in my herd.
So what does this look like practically? When I’m building a relational connection, I want horses to understand that they can control pressure by changing their thought and thinking about me. If I am applying pressure and the horse begins to leave, I will gently keep that pressure on until they look at me. Soon the horse will understand that they can control my pressure by connecting instead of leaving. You will then transform your presence in the space from a negative stressor into a positive resource for your horse. The ultimate goal is to give our horses what they relationally need and do it in a way that doesn’t create a learned helplessness situation or a sacked out mentality.
In conclusion, if a horse feels scared, you must lessen what you are asking and bring them back to a calm, thinking state. Once your horse is thinking again, you need to spend some time empowering them and helping them learn to control pressure by connecting with you. Remember that you are trying to meet needs, earn trust, and teach your horses to believe in themselves (not simply make them obey you). By taking the time to see pressure through our horses’ eyes, we can develop new insights and cultivate a mindset that deepens our relational connection with horses and fosters a mutually deep sense of peace and joy!
Reprinted with permission. Visit https://joshnichol.com/