Responding to Pressure – horse and humans. Part 2

Sure, a ground manners don’t affect the score on the judge’s card or change a barrel run time, so naturally many don’t devote riding time to teaching skills in hand.  Until a horse’s ground manners start to become a bigger problem.

When I hear someone describe their horse as a “real personality”, affectionate or “in your pocket”, I hear code words for pushy.  If your horse is annoying to work around or hang onto while you’re having a conversation with someone, he may benefit from a personality makeover!
 If your horse ever:

  • Turns bridling into a wrestling match
  • Circles around you to face something else that grabs his attention
  • Dives for grass when your latching a gate
  • Bites on the lead shank
  • Swings his hip away or walks off when you’re mounting

Some ground schooling just might make him more pleasant to be around!

It’s worth noting that terms such as respect or dominance are misleading because the horse doesn’t equate a human to another horse.  Those descriptions also unfairly apply human motives and goals to our horses. But the concept of deferring space is familiar to a horse. Perhaps yielding to pressure is a better description. A horse pressures a herd mate to yield – move away from the round bale! That herdmate responds, stepping back. Horses understand that physical language.

Yielding to pressure.  Unintentionally, you may have trained your horse to push back on any pressure you apply – bracing to the lead shank when backing or shoving his head into you while bridling.  Use every resistance as a horse training opportunity, asking your horse to defer his space instead. Back him up several steps. Push his head away from you firmly enough to motivate but not scare him, sending the message move away and stay away. Refuse to become his sparring partner. If he keeps coming back into your space, step up the pressure a bit. If a horse can feel a fly, he can be attentive to the lightest pressure.

We’re always training – there’s no neutral. I encourage riders to be mindful of each moment they spend on the ground or in the saddle, catching those little resistances and using them as horse training opportunities, rather than letting them slip under the radar. 

Try to interrupt the resistance as it starts, each time, until it’s finally erased. If not, it will undoubtedly show up later under a pressure situation like a horse show. One trainer calls them unauthorized decisions – I like that!

 Dos and Don’ts

  • Do be clear in your body language. Be readable in all your cues. Nervousness can cause us to deliver mousy signals.
  • Do establish your personal space. I slip little back-ups into every interaction, periodically connecting the horse to me. Before entering his stall or paddock gate.  Prior to releasing him in turnout.
  • Do be the decision maker.  Your horse’s unauthorized decisions should be methodically corrected or they’ll multiply. In the absence of direction, your horse will fill the void.
  • Do keep emotions out of the picture. Each correction is swift, appropriate and over within a second.
  • Keep expectations and corrections the same between all those who handle your horse.  Each handler should use the same timing and intensity of cues.
  • Don’t hold your horse in place. Horses constantly held in lead shank pressure to maintain their pace or path, become either oblivious to or claustrophobic from the continual tension.  Lighten up on your hand so your horse finds release each time he finds his freedom box.
  • Don’t get in your horse’s face. There’s a downside to cuddling your horse. Though “kissing-horse- face” photos tug the heart in social media and advertisements (if you love your horse, you’ll deworm with…), kissing isn’t your horse’s “love language”.  Kissing is a human expression, while horses express their bonding preferences for herd mates in other ways.  Research shows they actually prefer being scratched or massaged, particularly around the withers, by their people.

 With children or horses, establishing limits and expectations is just plain considerate. Insecurity and resentment arise when boundaries aren’t well communicated, or they shift.

Wow! Could I be un-training my horse if I don’t follow through on the details?  What if I reset my expectations so that every question I ask my horse requires a soft response, from the moment I unload from the trailer to our entrance into the ring?

The payoff is my horse is less likely to say “no” when the pressure’s on. Fewer costly wrong leads, added strides, or seconds lost in speed events.

What about humans?

10 months of pandemic pressures have squeezed many of us emotionally, financially, relationally and physically.  When I’m feeling squeezed by circumstances, what does it bring out in me?

Resistance or resilience?

Resistance is sarcasm. Social media outrage.  Stiffening against hope – a heart hardened by disappointment. Learned helplessness is a term in horse training to describe an animal who’s given up, stopped trying – numbed and apathetic. It applies to people too.

Yet resilience mixes strength and softness. Like a branch bent under the weight of snow but not broken, pressure tests our resilience, doesn’t it?  It tests our core beliefs, surfacing the question “Where is my hope?”

When all that’s familiar is turned upside down, we’re more inclined to consider life’s big questions and learn some life lessons, don’t you think?

 I guess that’s the plus side of pressure.