Responding to pressure – horses and humans. Part 1

When I’m feeling squeezed by the world, does it bring out the best or the worst in me?

Anyone who works with horses can tell you that yielding to pressure is the essential element of all horse training – in the saddle and on the ground. Yet, when horses feel pressure, their instinctive default is to push back at best – panic at worst.

If your horse has a sticking point under saddle, is it possible to “trace the brace” to some area in his ground schooling?

 I’d hedge a bet that most horse people, describing themselves as “riders” would say it’s more satisfying to be in the saddle than beside the horse,  on foot.  But if the reason is because it’s safer on your horse’s back, groundwork would add to the everyday enjoyment of your equine partner.

Does your horse ever…

  • Knock you with his head, smearing your horse show jacket?
  • Tetherball around you, calling to his buddies after unloading from the trailer?
  • Snatch your arm almost out of the socket, diving for grass?
  • Rush through the gate or his stall door?
  • Swing around at the mounting block?
  • Chew on the lead shank (or your hand) when you’re holding him at the show ring?

Do you look for opportunities between classes to hand him to your “groom” (code – mom, dad or significant other)?

Then let’s get going on how to install some ground control skills.

But first, let’s clarify our terms. When I hear someone describe their horse as a “real personality”, affectionate or “in your pocket”, I hear code words for pushy.  Yet terms such as respect or dominance are misleading because the horse doesn’t equate a human to another horse.  It also unfairly applies human motives and goals to our horses.
 Having said that, the concept of deferring space, or yielding to pressure is familiar to a horse in a social context.  A horse uses pressure to move a herd mate away from the gate or the round bale. That herd mate steps back and peace returns.  Horses understand that physical language

  1. Visualize what you want. As with any skill, picture the big goal and the interim goals. Envision your horse walking calming beside you as you tour around the show grounds. Standing in his own space as you stop to have a conversation with a friend or change the bit on your bridle.  Not mugging you as you fish for something in your tack trunk.  Not nipping at you while you eat your lunch-even an apple.

  2. Define your expectations. Where exactly do I expect my horse to stand, or to face when I mount?  How fast do I want to walk back to the barn?  Define what “walking beside me” looks like. How far in front and behind your shoulder is his free zone before you correct him?
  3. 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 training opportunity, asking him 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 pressures.

When a horse feels pressured, yet responds in a calm, soft and attentive manner, the concept spills into other areas of training.

So, when I’m feeling squeezed by the world, does it bring out the best or the worst in me?

When I next feel financial pressures and people pressures, squeezed by time and squashed by the daily menu of doom in the news, how will I respond? With lashing out, self-preservation? Isolation and hoarding my time and resources? Or with generosity – sharing my stuff, my sympathy , my smile with others ?

“There is one who gives freely yet increases more. Another withholds what is right and suffers want. A generous person will prosper. Whoever refreshes another will be refreshed.” Proverbs. The Bible.