You’re in the library, lusting after the book on the top shelf. A librarian is sitting at her desk, reading. You need her help because she’s at least two feet taller than you. What should you do? Scenario 1: “Ma’am, I’m going to throw books at you until you decide to get up and help me get this book.” Scenario 2: “Hey look, Mrs. L! I have a plate of cookies! Do you want a cookie? I’ll just put one on the top shelf and you can come and get it …” Scenario 3: “Excuse me, I need the book from the top shelf. Could you get it for me?”

I think we can agree that scenario three made the most sense. Was reinforcement needed in this approach? No. Was pressure? Well that depends on how you define pressure.

There are quite a few methods of training that people agree and disagree on – different ways people think about pressure. This article will hopefully explore some of these ideas, question them, and introduce some alternative thought patterns that will be much simpler and frankly, more fun.

Negative Reinforcement

My definition

Negative Reinforcement (NR) is when a behaviour is corrected through doling out discomfort or removing a freedom/privilege/comfort in effort to negotiate or make someone do what you want. A common phrase we hear when NR is in action is, “if you do that, I’ll do this” or “unless you do this, I will —“.

What it does

NR causes the subject of it to fear/avoid whatever is uncomfortable in order to get what they want/need. The one giving the NR uses it to control others whom they believe to be less important or in a subservient position, thus taking advantage of the other’s weakness and using it to mold a behaviour.

What this does in horses

Because the biggest part of the horse’s brain is the part that detects and learns patterns, NR works very well to teach them what not to do, and create ‘comfortable’ behaviours (a.k.a. tricks). After X number of repetitions and finding out that certain actions produce responses, they will learn to avoid discomfort and anticipate what will cause them discomfort. It’s a perfectly natural thing for a horse to do. In the wild they learn to avoid all sorts of discomfort; they learn to avoid deep snow because it makes them tired. They avoid the bush on a windy day because a branch could fall. They are basically responding to nature’s NR all the time, and that is why humans can train using this method.

Why NR is lacking

If your goal is communication with horses, NR is only going to destroy it. Because NR relies on the horse’s ability to notice patterns, the only thing it communicates to him is that there will be more things to avoid when he’s with you; but since he has no choice but to be with you, he makes the best of it just like he makes the best of natures trials. He does whatever he can to make himself as comfortable as possible, and then he copes with the rest. This results in a robotic, dull horse which many horsemen mistake for obedience. Every cue you give him must be memorized and learnt according to the means of NR you use. There is no exchange of information between the two of you. You know the ‘rules’ of the game and he follows them …mostly …if he can stay calm enough to follow the pattern he learnt. Much of the time, the cues taught don’t rely on common-sense, or body language. So the horse stops using his instincts. This is a problem, especially if suddenly he’s distracted or spooked, because he’ll revert back to his instincts and flip your cues the bird.

Positive Reinforcement

My definition

Positive reinforcement (PR) is the idea that one will present comfort/relief/positive stimulus after a desired behaviour is displayed. Common PR includes excessive praise after the desired behaviour or a reward.

What it does

PR causes the subject of it to search for what made him happy/satisfied. In searching for this reward, the subject will most likely try the desired behaviour again, thus earning the reward.

What this does in horses

A horse might decide to gallop through the woods, where (surprise!) he finds a patch of clover. The horse, however, does not perceive this as a reward for galloping, and this is where humans are sadly deluded. Something must first cause the horse to move towards the PR …hmm pressure?

Why PR is lacking

As you can imagine, horses who get trained using only positive reinforcement often don’t have a sense of boundaries. The situation often becomes outrageously dangerous in inexperienced hands, and the owner usually thinks it’s the horse ‘expressing himself’ when really they’re in grave danger. Because PR does work to an extent, a person might see positive results like increased curiosity and confidence. The results gained by using PR entirely depends on the horse’s nature and the circumstances. And then there’s the other problem – hypocrisy in so many of the articles and discussions about using PR. Handlers are claiming they use ‘absolutely no’ negative reinforcement. But how do they get the horse out of the paddock in the first place? How do they trailer load their horse? How do they even halter the horse? The truth we all need to admit is that PR requires a little bit of NR.


My definition

Punishment is a means of stopping an undesirable behaviour through giving undesirable stimulus directly following the behaviour.

What it does

Punishment is meant to make the subject remorseful about what they have done, however, it can result in the subject being resentful/fearful of their accuser.

What this does in horses

Horses do not understand punishment. Since the part of their brain that measures time and consequences is very small, punishment is merely an attack on their well-being with absolutely no relation to their previous actions at all. They simply don’t think of things in terms of the past and its implications on the present. Punishment, to a horse, is predatory behaviour and a threat to their existence.

Why punishment is lacking

Punishment is nearly out of style in the horse world (good thing!). However, the punishing mindset is still very natural to humans; and sadly, humans get into the habit of treating horses like humans, and begin to think that somehow the horse will feel remorse. They give small consequences that, not only don’t make sense to the horse, but batter them down as well. A sharp smack when the horse bucks or kicks out, an angry word during the farrier’s visit; it’s all just predatory behaviour to the horse, therefore he must retaliate and save himself, generally making the situation worse.

Pressure and Release

A combination of NR and PR

‘Pressure and release’ is what some have found to be a middle ground between NR and PR. They’ve realized that just using pressure doesn’t work, and just cuddles and treats don’t work. So they’ve formed one big system of reinforcement using both forms of reinforcement. The problem is, now we’re right back where we started – confused, because there are so many different kinds of reinforcement!

What it does

Similar to NR, pressure and release starts by teaching the subject that certain actions cause pain/discomfort. Then there is the similarity to PR, where certain actions cause happiness/comfort. So the common picture to describe P+R would be this: Horse will not move out of owner’s space with a slight wave of the arm, so owner whacks horse. Owner then immediately backs off or rewards the horse for moving. Next time, the handler only flicks their hand and the horse moves. Painless. Often, ‘phases’ of pressure are used to give the horse as much chance as possible to do the right thing.

What this does in horses

With this approach, the horse basically is given the tools to totally abandon his nature and do things against his instincts in order to avoid pain and earn comfort. Horses will do all sorts of things; from backing up, to sitting like a dog, to jumping great heights; just to anticipate either discomfort, or comfort. As long as he continues to search for answers, his owner usually remains happy and believes that he is on the top of the pecking order. The horse can actually remain quite happy because there is always the hope of release. It’s not all bad. Lots of these horses actually remain quite happy.

Why this doesn’t work as well as we all thought.

If you haven’t read “1984” by George Orwell, you really need to. Orwell shows this form of manipulation up for what it really is by describing a corrupt, futuristic government brainwashing its citizens through clever employment of P+R. Again, you see helpless ‘victims’ who are really quite happy with their situation, but the situation is unnatural and confusing.

When a horse can abandon his instincts (begin to believe that ‘black is white’ and 2+2=5) then you know you have successfully trained him using P+R. I admit, I have used this technique and it made me think that my horse was ‘connected’ to me – that he respected me. What my horse actually learnt was that I expected him to respond a certain way to certain cues I’d invented for him to follow. He became a ‘problem solver’ – responding in the way I taught him to respond, and not how he naturally would. That’s why this method is not failsafe. Any time a horse retrains his instinct, there is always a possibility he can revert back to instinct in extreme situations, making the situation suddenly dangerous.

I’d like to introduce an alternative thought pattern:

The way of life

Let me get one thing very clear: you can’t do anything without pressure.

Have you ever waltzed or taken any type of partner dance class? An expert dance couple will be a unit. You won’t even know who’s leading who because both of them are participating so energetically. Is there pressure? YES! I am a dancer, and there is lots of pressure when dancing as a couple. The pressure is, in fact, what makes the dance so much fun! If my partner just bobbled around with no stance, energy, or initiative, I’d get really frustrated with them.

When you dance, you find out that the roles of ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ are not inferior. In fact, the act of the leader is to support the follower, so they can safely perform his/her best. Often, the follower is the showcased talent. The leader is merely facilitating the movement and providing a safe framework.

A flower cannot grow without pressure.  A child cannot be born without pressure. You cannot even walk without pressure. Imagine a world without pressure. There would be no nature, no interaction between humans, starving people would be everywhere because there would be no pressure to eat or go to the bathroom. In life, any relationship you’re going to have takes pressure to form and develop. Huh. My rant is nearly finished.

Now back to horses:

What if you could train using the horse’s instinctual language as a failsafe way to communicate requests? What if you could have a conversation as two equals, working out how the ‘dance’ will look like and how to best ‘showcase the talent’? If there is one thing that owning a Fjord has taught me, it’s that I HAVE to train using what’s instinctual to him. If I don’t, he will take matters into his own hands (or hooves), and any trick or maneuver I’ve tried to teach him will go out the window. I don’t want to be trail riding one day and suddenly be on the ground because Stormy couldn’t remember what I’d taught him. Guess what? If we’ve been training correctly, he won’t need to memorize anything!

What does this kind of training look like?

Well for starters, it DOES NOT include hours spent waiting for Storm to initiate something. I am generally impatient, so I like to do things. ask him if he’d like to dance, and if he says ‘not really’, then I ask ‘why?’ and we get to the bottom of that before we start our work. The point being, I never leave things at a ‘no’, because having your horse’s best interests in mind sometimes means convincing them to cooperate. It’s called a conversation, and if you can’t have one because you’re too afraid of pressure, then perhaps you should stop interaction with other living things at once.

There are some qualifiers to avoid pressure, however:

  • If you’re dealing with a situation of extreme abuse or a violent horse, you might want to consider taking a backseat to training, and focus on gaining the horse’s trust.
  • If you know you tend to have too much energy or high expectations, you have permission to back away and learn to listen.

Lack of self-confidence, fear and pity are not qualifiers. These are feelings that you must learn to work with and around in your journey to authentic communication with your horse.

I know there have been many flow charts made and ‘scientific’ discoveries made about how horses and herds function. However, you can reduce anything to a mere chemical reaction – love, sadness, happiness, you name it – and it still won’t answer your questions to give you satisfying relationships.

I’m curious, what’s your take on pressure?








3 thoughts on “Coming to Grips With Pressure

  1. Hmm…pressure? I am interpreting this that most of the riding aids ( leg aids finger aids etc) are all a form of pressure and when the horse moves in the way we want the pressure is released. I don’t think that the horse I ride now does not enjoy what he is doing. I think that no amount of pressure from me could get him to do it if he really did not want to and did not actually enjoy doing it. I am a dressage rider and ride at an FEI level but we also go hacking in the forest and go for gallops as well. He loves the forest hacks and loves to gallop and I think he loves the dressage moves as well. I actually believe he likes to show off. I do have to use pressure on and off to remind him of what we are doing. This is an interesting post and I shall think more about it.


    1. Interesting thoughts, Anne. Perhaps I should have divulged more in my post about the systematic training in pressure and release I’d had in the past. It turned me (and through me my horse) into a complete robot. My horse started holding back I his offerings to me simply because he didn’t want to run into another ‘problem’ id set up for him. I am absolutely pro-pressure …and release. However, I find horses so malleable and soft towards any kind of pressure that they often do what they don’t understand. I guess it’s my life long endeavour to figure out what they do understand, so we can come at things on more equal terms. But it’s a humbling thing and a lovely thing to see horses and humans still having great relationships, even through all of our differences. Sounds to me you’ve got a wonderful relationship with your horse. And hey, what is communication if it isn’t unique to each and every one of us?

      Liked by 1 person

Tell me what you think!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s