What is Pressure?
Let’s jog on over to a natural horsemanship clinic.
(Before I begin, I have a disclaimer. The only reason I have disclaimer is when I tell people I predominately train without pressure, they tell me, with their fists clenched, that it’s impossible and they look like they want to punch me.)
Disclaimer: I am not against the use of pressure. I am against pressure being disguised as gentle, warm and fuzzy or a force-free alternative. I am against negative reinforcement being the only line of communication with a horse. I am advocating a balance of using attraction based methods and pressure based methods in the proportion that horses spend using each during their day. I am for using attraction-based methods to introduce pressure to a horse. Often when I train this way I don’t have to use pressure. I am for understanding the differences between using pressure and using attraction.
Okay, now let’s jog on over to a natural horsemanship clinic. The basic gist at one of these clinics is that horses communicate with pressure and that their deepest heart’s desire is the release of pressure, to be left alone. The conclusion is that the release of pressure is the reward. This theory has left me empty.
Pressure is defined by Merriam Webster online as:
- The burden of physical or mental distress.
- The constraint of circumstance.
- The application of force to something by something else in direct contact with it.
Just for kicks, note in the third bullet: the application of force to something by something else in direct contact with it. Like the application of the friendly training stick (some are even named after vegetables) by the trainer in the round pen to the horse’s butt because it didn’t move fast enough. (I wonder if the horse finds the stick as palatable as the human.)
Nowhere to Run, Well, Except in Circles
Since the horse is either in a round pen or on a long rope, it has no place to go except in circles. There is no escape. This by the way is also a definition of force which is violence, compulsion, or constraint exerted upon or against a person or thing. The horse begins a journey of learned helplessness. Its only choice is to do what the trainer asks. In order to get the horse to move, the trainer usually waves the whacking stick or a rope. If the horse does not move it gets tapped or whacked. In other word it gets, the application of FORCE to something by something else in direct contact with it.
Soon the horse learns to anticipate the waving of the arm in connection with the application of the stick and figures its a good idea to move before the stick hits him. Then he associates a forward stomp of the handler’s foot with the waving of the arm and the whacking of the stick and moves with just a stomp. Then he associates a raising of an eyebrow with the stomp of the handler’s foot with the waving of the arm and the whacking of the stick and moves with just the raising of an eyebrow. By now the horse can be sent running with just an eyebrow. The handler didn’t even need to whisper. His eyebrow did all the talking.
The Great and Mighty Eyebrow
I view that eyebrow like a less-than-greater-than sign (>). Prior to the eyebrow, the handler uses very large demonstrative actions to force/pressure the horse into a behavior (the wide part of the sign) then gradually reduces the intensity of those behaviors to the subtlest of cues (the narrow point of the sign). This makes it appear as if he’s not doing much to get the horse moving.
If you’re in the audience watching this happen, you may hear “Wow, he can make the horse move with just an eyebrow!” No, actually it was the threat of force that made the horse move.
In this case the eyebrow represents the first part of the definition of pressure: the burden of physical or mental distress and the constraints of the circumstance (round pen, lunge line). “You better move when I raise my eyebrow or else! Oh, and there’s no escape.”
The horse remembers all too well what it felt like to be whacked and chased with the friendly vegetable stick. “Eyebrow equals whacking stick equals ouch equals I better move.” Therefore eyebrow equals move. In a horse’s mind, behind each small, subtle gesture is the threat of force.
Yankin’ and Shankin’
Here’s a handy little list I compiled with the help of my horses to show me when I was using pressure.
Waving a stick, rope, flag or a stick with a flag
Waving my arms
I quickly found everything I did, every single action with my horse, involved pressure. That bothered me. I don’t like to be pressured so why would I think my horse would like it either.
After reading a bit about BF Skinner’s work in Operant conditioning, I noticed that at the core of every technique, labeled as gentle, natural or whispering, was actually positive punishment (pressure) and negative reinforcement (release). A common example of this marriage is pulling on the reins creating pressure to stop, which is always paired with the release of pressure, when the horse stops. No big deal, except, in my mind, when the horse associates the pressure with pain.
Horses Don’t Cry
I think we can get away with training with pressure, and lots of it, simply because horses rarely cry out in pain or fear. In the wild this would advertise them as dinner to the local mountain lions. In a round pen for instance, this makes it really easy to pressure and force a horse way beyond their biological inclination to cry Uncle. We can measure physical stress with a stethoscope, but there’s no telling what the mental toll is until later.
Horses aren’t the only creatures that get pressured on a daily basis. I dare you to count how many TV or print ads sound something like this: “If you were to die to today, will your life insurance policy provide for you loved ones?” Or, “Every day people are losing their homes in foreclosure. Call us now for your free debt consolidation consultation.” Although we are not being physically whacked, we definitely are being mentally bombarded with all sorts of pressure and fear-based messages to get us to behave a certain way.
A Real Reward
So when we bust our bottoms to meet quota at work our reward is we get to keep our job. The threat of losing our job is the pressure, the keeping the job is the release. Wouldn’t be great if the reward were a real reward, like a bonus from the boss, or a few paid days off. To me, I’m more motivated by something that feels good, not something that feels bad.
Just because it’s second nature for us to live in a pressure and punishment based society, doesn’t make it right. Thankfully, no one is imposing that kind of society for my horses. I have the freedom to choose.
I can be that great boss that gives the kind of rewards that matter. I continually strive to find attraction based solutions for every behavior that traditionally requires pressure to achieve. It’s my secret hope that this will work for humans too.