Mental Pressure
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Wednesday, January 9, 2013 07:10 PM
As gregarious creatures horses and humans use mental pressure in their daily interactions with each other all the time. This tool was probably developed in order to minimize physical confrontations between members of a group. If used skillfully and in moderation this is an effective way to explain to a horse your will. They understand mental pressure very well and seek ways to relieve it. However, mental pressure can be a very dangerous tool making horses and humans suffer as much if not more as under physical pain. For humans bulling is a most common example. I am going to talk about couple situations which I observe quite often where mental pressure is abused and induces suffering. One is when humans create a constant mental pressure on their horses without realizing it. Another, when horses create substantial mental pressure on their handles/riders. If this is a surprise to you you are probably suffering from the pressure your beloved equine partner puts on you. And you do not even know it.
Human Pressure
A rider has very high expectations and does not recognize the efforts the horse puts into trying to understand what he/she wants. The rider takes for granted a good performance, on the other hand, overreacts to any mistake his/her horse makes. If on top of that this rider is inconsistent in his/her demands and changes expectations on day to day basis it is very difficult for the horse to know exactly what to do. It puts a lot of mental pressure on the horse and may even lead to strong objections or shutdowns depending on the horse's temperament.
Or, a rider may not know exactly what is he/she looking for and keeps asking even though the horse already gave a proper response. In this situation the horse will eventually become uninterested and dull because no matter what he is doing there is no relief. Many school horses are like that precisely because their efforts are not recognized and mental pressure and physical discomfort continues no matter what they do so they stop trying and learn to protect themselves from the "noise" created by riders.
In the second example the situation is quite obvious and the rider simply needs time, practice and good coaching to become a better, more skillful equestrian. I really take my hat off for school horses. They are unrecognized heroes who take in a lot to allow humans to learn from them.
First example is much more dire. Unless this rider changes his/her attitude, becomes very humble and starts listening to the horse and learning from him nothing will change. The horse will suffer, learn to cope or, in worst cases, break down.
Equine Pressure
Horses can put a lot of pressure on their handles/riders if they let them. It happens not only with inexperienced beginners, it even happens to people who spend years working with or owning horses. Horses are relentless, often ruthless and easily exploit weaknesses. They need these qualities to survive in the wild. These traits were nurtured in them over millions of years and several thousand years of domestication is not nearly enough to get rid of them. If you still cannot come up with an example of equine pressure here is one. With one rider a horse is spooky, not going forward, turns suddenly toward the door. With another rider this same horse appears to be perfectly schooled, obedient and brave. Another example, a horse is very hard to lead, a handler constantly pulls on a lead rope, the horse stalks behind, pulls toward grass, etc.
In a first example the first rider is simply a beginner and the horse knows it and puts on a "drama act" to get out of work. Plus the beginner rider is not a pleasant rider for a horse, the horse tries it's best to intimidate the rider.
In a second example, the horse does not "see" his handler and behaves like he is on his own moving at his leisure pace looking for grass or paying attention to his surroundings and other horses.
These are very obvious and simple examples. Horses can "torture" their handlers/riders with numerous tricks. If you see a handler that constantly yells, yanks on the lead rope, gets frustrated with the horse without really getting anywhere you can be sure the horse knows very well who is in charge and gets on the nerves of his handler all the time. If you see a handler and a horse together who look like they read each others minds and the horse appears quiet, focused and happily obedient you are sure witnessing a skillful horseperson at work.

After years of working with horses I can tell you there is no magic formula to help create happy and effective relationship. It is many, many hours of observation, searching for answers, making mistakes, learning from them and developing deep and passionate love and respect for these amazing creatures. Here are few ideas that may help you on your path to understanding a horse:
  • Learn about horses - their nature, language, how they perceive the world around them, how they learn. Do not project human emotions and opinions on them. Horses do not think like humans!
  • Respect horses - always remember they are very powerful and fast animals. Never assume they are your pets. It is very dangerous to spoil a horse thinking it will like you for that. Always be aware of their strength, and your safety. They can kill a human in an instant.Do not take this lightly. People get hurt and die from stupid accidents and not necessarily from falling off the horse. Scaring a horse into submission is not a good way of working with horses neither.
  • Do not fear horses - the more you know about horses the less you fear them. Being afraid limits your thinking ability and observational skills. Horses sense fear and some will intimidate upon it, others will worry a lot.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, movements, posture, space between you and your horse. Be aware of your horse, his state of mind, body and intentions.
  • Control your emotions - too much emotions, especially negative, cloud our judgment, make us overreact and severely limit our observational abilities. Fear, projecting human way of thinking onto horses and focusing too much on a goal are just a few reasons humans become too emotional while working with horses. This lead to frustration, annoyance, being too upset etc. All these negative emotions prevent humans from effective observation and solving problems in difficult situations.
  • Know your limitations - be frank and honest with yourself. If you never worked with 2-year-olds do not assume you can easily take one and teach it to be a riding horse. Same with working with the stallions. If you have slow reactions it is better not to work with young horses at all as they can react extremely fast and unpredictable.
  • Learn from mistakes - have a right attitude toward mistakes. They are vital part of working with horses. Mistakes are very effective teaching tool. Learn from them. Instead of getting upset with yourself or your horse analyze what happened and find better ways of dealing with the similar situation.
  • Learn from horses - last but not least. Always be ready to learn from your horse. Never assume you know everything and you are smarter than a horse. They have amazing abilities at perception, picking on very small nuances, understanding your state of mind and emotions, abilities to forgive, etc.
Happy riding...
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My blog is about teaching, riding and training. I share what is important to me in my work with horses and riders. The writing helps me to think things over and have a better understanding of training ideas and priciples.
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