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Discovering Ourselves through Training Horses

Over the past few months I have been reflecting on four major components of horsemanship that have direct parallels to our lives, our faith, and our place in community. It is my hope that by sharing these thoughts with you, you may begin to see how these four elements not only improve our ability to work with horses, but improve our ability to be friends, family members, and community members that seek to imitate Christ in all that we do.

#1 - Pressure

If you’ve spent any amount of time listening to horse people, odds are you’ve heard the phrase “pressure and release.” It’s a core piece of theory behind 90% of horsemen and women. The essence of the phrase reminds people that horses don’t learn from the application of pressure, but rather the release of that pressure. More on the release in a moment.

For example, let’s examine teaching a horse to be unbothered by a distraction such as a swinging rope by the horse’s head. To a horse (a flight prey animal), sudden movements that make noise are some of the scariest things. The pressure of the swinging rope by their face speaks to the flight side of their brain - “There is a new stimulus in my environment, it’s making me uncomfortable, I feel like I need to flee in order to protect myself.”

While a human understands that the swinging rope poses no real threat to the horse, the horse perceives an immediate and real threat. While this pressure feels real, in training we ask the horse to set aside their instinct to flee and instead place their trust and confidence in their human handler. This is a huge step for many horses! To set aside their internal desire to simply flee and avoid the pressure and instead remain steadfast in the face of uncertainty and discomfort. For a horse to stand still and process demonstrates a great ability to trust another species more than their instincts. It’s choosing to stay in the fire, trusting that there is a clear answer on the other side.

#2 - Release

Keep the concept of a swinging rope in your mind. As the horse chooses to think through a perceived threat in the rope instead of instantly fleeing, it is the handler’s responsibility to say “Yes! That’s it! Use your beautifully-designed thinking brain instead of your reactive brain.” If you’ve ever watched a groundwork session, you’ve seen the immediate reaction this brings to the horse - they lower their head, lick their lips, cock a hind foot, and/or take a deep breath. It’s at that exact moment where the handler removes the perceived threat and stops swinging the rope. These signs are all signs of a horse who has chosen to remain still in the face of pressure, trust their handler, and is then immediately rewarded. Horses learn from the release of pressure instead of the application of pressure.

In an environment of relentless pressure, the horse does not learn. Rather, the horse ignores, becomes bitter, or perhaps even turns to the fight side of their instinct. A well-timed release does a world of good for a horse's body and brain. The release is their reward, it’s the instant gratification and assurance that horses (and humans) crave. It’s the “well done, good and faithful servant” translated into a language they understand.

#3 - Consistency

So we know that horses learn from the release of pressure, rather than the application of pressure. A well-timed release is what horses need from their riders and handlers. But it’s not just the release that builds a willing equine partner. The release of pressure must be consistent in order to truly train the animal.

Think about yourself and what sticks in your mind the most. Is it the sentence you read once in a textbook years ago, or is it the worshipful lyrics to your favorite hymn? Do you remember how to drive through that new town without relying on Google, or do you know your route home like the back of your hand? Consistency is what makes things stick in our memories, and this is also true for horses. Every time you interact with a horse you’re either training or untraining - reinforcing positive behavior or instilling negative habits.

Our consistency in being as soft as possible but as firm as necessary with our horses is what builds trust in the relationship. If we can demonstrate to our horses that we always have their best interest in mind, even when their instincts are giving them big yellow “Caution!” signs, we are on our way to having a partner for life.

#4 - Grace

While pressure, release, and consistency are all critical pieces to the puzzle, we cannot forego the importance of grace. As people of faith, we believe in the power of grace and forgiveness. Grace for ourselves when working with horses when we inevitably miss a release or put too much pressure on a horse at once. Learning how to learn from our mistakes and move forward into the future with a new set of tools learned from past horses who taught us much. While a well-timed release means everything to a horse, God has also given them (and us) a multitude of grace that allows them to forgive and continue to learn. That’s when a truly amazing partnership can begin to flourish - when there is a constant give and take of pressure, release, learning, and grace between human and equine.

While these four ideas, pressure, release, consistency, and grace, are identifiable every day in horsemanship, they are also present in our everyday human lives if we simply look for them. We can choose to grow through challenging, pressure-filled circumstances in our life. We enjoy a deep breath of release after a good day’s hard work. We receive and extend grace to our loved ones and ourselves. We commit to healthy, productive habits that build a consistent pattern in our lives. And above all else, we trust that our ultimate Creator, the one who knows our hearts and brains, is working for our good and His glory in the midst of chaos.

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