Thursday, July 16, 2009

Beyond Pressure and Release - the First Step: Attention

If you haven't read my post from yesterday - "Beyond Pressure and Release - the Next Step on the Road" - you might want to read it now, or otherwise what I'm writing in this post probably won't make much sense to you.

Tom Moates's book "A Horse's Thought - A Journey Into Honest Horsemanship" is about his own learning how to better work with horses by riding with, watching and listening to Harry Whitney. Now, I've never had the chance (yet) to ride with or see Harry, but it's a pretty high priority on my list at this point. At the beginning of the book (p. 10), Tom describes where he's gotten to - before he begins to understand and learn the things the book talks about:
All the work I did with horses leading up to Arizona was progress of a kind. The mare opened up in time, and we worked through many technical details. I learned tons from all kinds of sources and experiences. Pressure and release was working for us pretty well from the ground and the saddle. I could send her around the round pen, changing speeds and then back off the pressure and bring her in to me. The signs from her indicated to me in my mind that we were getting on great. She listened fine. There were still some problems, and trouble would resurface in areas I had already cleared out, which I thought was weird, but it seemed clear that our relationship was fine and she trusted me.
Bingo. That's Maisie and me, in a nutshell. I had already realized that there was something missing because of the worry Maisie still shows under certain circumstances. And the idea of applying pressure and release to Dawn, or driving her around a round pen, was worrying me a lot - I didn't know if I had the finesse to apply just the right amount of pressure to Dawn to have her respond without exploding. Dawn is one of those horses that "goes away" and then explodes under pressure.

Tom's book has lots of examples of things Harry does with horses, that are very different from what most clinicians do, from traditional ones to "natural horsemanship" ones (a pretty meaningless term - really just a marketing label - as both Harry and Mark Rashid point out). But this book isn't really about how to solve a particular problem with a horse, or how to do something to get to a particular result - that's just technique that works on the outside of the horse - effective, perhaps, but sort of hollow. What the book is really about is the work of establishing a true conversation with the inside of the horse, not just using pressure and release on the outside of the horse - although that's still part of the equation.

Now don't misunderstand me - I do firmly believe that there are a spectrum of techniques - ways to communicate with horses - that are better and worse. I came from a world where a lot of people used the worse techniques and have come to understand that no, the horse isn't "disrespectful" or "disobedient" - the horse doesn't understand what you're asking or is troubled about something. I've learned not to use force to "make" the horse do things, but to ask, using pressure and release and the softest cues I can. But I've been focussed on doing one thing, and the next thing and so on - building links in the chain so my horse better understands what I am asking and can comply. But I've still basically got a mechanical horse - just one that responds to more humane and thoughtful cues than I used to use.

Some thoughts and quotes from the book that got me thinking:

Harry's clinics, like Mark Rashid's, involve one-on-one work with a small number of riders over a period of days. There's no music, no flash and no show - it's very slow and quiet - there are brief moments of drama but the real work occurs in the waiting, the noticing and the silence.

p. 5:
Classic Harry Whitney teachings, I've since come to understand, always include two basic truths: asking how the horse feels about things inside himself, and that you should learn to ask a horse to send his thoughts to places before thinking about having his body go there.
Harry doesn't drive a horse around the pen, or poke them. Harry's methods involve getting the horse's attention (subtly), and offering the horse the chance to make choices. This isn't the way most of us were taught to work. p. 11:
If you drive a horse forward around the pen, then back off that pressure, you create a vacuum that sucks the horse in. It's a trick that works, but the horse has very little choice in that scenario really because if the pressure applied is hard enough to drive him forward, then it is certainly hard enough for him to desire relief from it.
A lot of resistance to our cues comes from the horse objecting to how we make the request, not necessarily the request itself. One of Harry's (and Mark's) basic teachings is "Begin where you want to end up." p. 18 and 22:
Always, with complete consistency, begin asking a horse to do something in the way you eventually hope to see it in its refined state. That's it. . . . If the seemingly ridiculously light first "ask" is skipped, however, as just an impractical waste of time at the early stage, the horse is done a disservice. If we really want to present a horse choices, then we have to actually do our part and take the time it takes to make the effort to present real choices every step of the way, every time we do new things with our horses.
We often don't create the space for this to happen - we are in a hurry, and drive, or apply pressure, to the horse to get the horse to move more quickly toward the desired result - but by doing this we've not allowed the horse to offer up what we want in response to the exact cue we want to use.

p. 25:
The application of pressure and release should always be to show a horse ways to feel better inside. The horse with a problem is likely showing a sign of not feeling right emotionally about his situation.
There's more, about attention, intent and lots of other things. Are you interested in this book now? It is offered by the Long Riders' Guild Press as part of their Equestrian Wisdom and History Series. It is available from Amazon (here), Barnes & Noble and Amazon U.K. [Added note: best place to get it now may be Tom's website.] I'm ordering copies for all my horsey friends for Christmas if not earlier.

* * * * * *

Now here's something really weird that's been happening lately, that relates to all of this. Maisie's been watching me and waiting for me to get it. That sounds spooky, right? And it is. I've been getting glimpses of the next mountain (read my post from yesterday to get this), but I wasn't starting to really put the picture together until yesterday when I started to read Tom's book. Mark Rashid's been showing me these things for years, but I was so focussed on technique that I was missing most of the forest for the trees.

Maisie has been watching me, and waiting for me to notice that she's asking for something more from me. The most interesting case of this is when I take her into the ring and then go off to do something else. I don't ask her to stand, she "thinks" to stand because she understands exactly what I intend, I'm not sure how - I just intend it and it happens. I was just beginning to see the whole power of clear mental intent as a way to ask the horse. And the whole time I'm walking around the ring doing things - dragging poles or whatever - she doesn't just stand there and fall asleep - she watches me. It isn't watching like watching television - just something to see without engagement - folks, she's Watching Me. There's an attention there that's expectant. Spooky and cool, no? And she watches me any time I'm out in the pastures - she will even turn her head around to watch me. She's been waiting for me to get it - it's a good thing horses are patient with us!

And I've been getting glimpses of the next mountain with some of the mental focus and attention exercises I do with myself - see my post "Riding the Zip Line and Reconciliation". I've known for a while that it really isn't any more about pressure and release, or giving cues to get certain types of behavior from the horse. It's about me, and what I can notice and understand. Horses are incredibly sensitive animals - so much more sensitive than us - and we have to pay very close attention or we miss so much that they are trying to tell us.

One of the things it's all about is attention - the attention the horse pays to us and even more importantly the attention we pay the horse. How can we expect a horse to pay attention to us and follow our direction when much of the time we're not even really paying attention to the horse? A dull horse - one that seems insensitive and unresponsive to our cues - is a horse that has tuned us out. The horse is no longer paying attention, and must be thinking - "I'm tired of this person "shouting" at me all the time with her cues, and her endless drilling and repetition of what I already know, and then when I'm ready to talk to her, she isn't even paying attention to me!" The nervous, fretful, and even the explosive horse is telling us that it doesn't find any comfort with us - we haven't helped the horse find a way to be that is more comfortable inside - and the horse just wants to get away from us and the whole situation.

* * * * * *

I'm just back after trailering Scout to the Mark Rashid clinic in Wisconsin - it's a 2 hour drive each way. The clinic will be on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and I'm actually glad I'm not riding. The work I need to do now is to sit and watch and listen - what I'm looking for is attention and where attention goes away, and how it is brought back, both in horse and rider/handler, and how intent comes through. The clinic will be about leading, and ground work, and softening, and all that cue/response, pressure/release stuff, but for me this time it's going to be about what's going on in the conversation between horses and people, concerning the inside of the horse.


  1. Wow, Kate, there's a lot here for me to process. I'm not sure yet I entirely "get it," either. I think I may need to read the book myself to get a better idea of what it is these quotes are talking about.

  2. Kate I think many of us have been, and at least in my case, are still on the same type of journey. I look back at my life with my first couple of horses and I'm amazed they didn't kill me. I wasn't 'abusing' them by any means but wow, I would do things very differently with them today.

    Every horse I have owned or worked with, riding or not, teaches me more and more. Some force me to look for better ways of husbandry and management, others force me to look for more effective ways to ride and train. They are all teachers in some way.

    I am thankful that I've had a lot of great trainers over the years. I may not have agreed with everything, but let's face it no two horse people will ever be in complete agreement on everything. I did however learn a lot from each person I've worked with, even if it was a lot of lessons in what not to do (although that was really only one person).

  3. Wow Kate , great post, that's exactly what I feel and am trying to achieve with my horses.
    You explain it far better than I could!
    Do you know the work of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling?


  4. I was thinking that I should request that they bring Mark Rashid in as a clinician at the next Western States Horse Expo. I get tired of hearing the same old philosophies each year.

  5. There's an award for you at my blog!

  6. Interesting post. A lot to digest, though. I am still trying to figure out my Tucker, especially when he tells me things that conflict with what I need him to do. Ever a compromise, I think.

    I'll be intersted to hear about the clinic.

  7. Di - I don't know about Hempfling, although I'd like to know more - where should I look?

  8. Kate - Thanks for a great post. Developing my inner relationship with Pie and Sovereign is the only way I know how to "train". I have strong belief issues about practically every form of training - I don't even lounge because it feels wrong to me. (I know, I am weird!) Two very young TBs are only going to be safe if I "ask" them with my heart and mind and I listen with the same. They don't always understand, but I know that it is me that didn't ask correctly and I give them time and try to ask differently. I don't write about that too much in my blog because it is difficult to put into words. Your post is very good at explaining what I feel!

  9. Excellent topic and very thoughtful post!

    I think, at the core of it all, too many of us ask and expect things from our horse and expect HIM to listen to us...but we so often forget that communication is a two-way street. If we aren't listening to them and trying to understand what they are saying to us, why in the heck should they listen to us?

  10. Kate, So glad things are coming together for you.

  11. Cant wait to hear about the clinic. I think I am going to have to get that book. Sounds like a must read! I feel like I have an amazing connection with both my horses. I am really noticing this with my three year old that has just begun her under saddle training. She is so in tune with everything I ask of her. It is so exciting how fast she picks up on every subtle cue. I have spent so much time on the ground with her since she was born, that the riding part is unbelievably easy.

  12. I really like the quote about driving the horse forward and creating the pressure vacuum that the horse "desires relief from."
    This is a great explanation of what happens.

    At one point, years ago, I played around with some of the round pen type stuff after seeing Monty Roberts work his "magic" on a horse. Pretty soon the mare was following me around like a puppy dog. But the effects weren't lasting and I'm sure she was just glad to follow me around since it was a relief after having to run around that small pen.

    Also, "the application of pressure and release should always be to show a horse ways to feel better inside."

    What a nice quote.
    Too often, pressure is used through fear, force or intimidation.
    I like what Alexandra Kurland says. Although primarily a positive reinforcemnet trainer (cliker training) he uses subtle amounts of pressure as information. A subtle amount of pressure, and then recognizing and reinforing the smallest try. If the trainer acknowledges the smallest try, the horse is usually willing to offer a larger try. And no excessive force, phases or escalating pressure is needed.

    Mary H.


Thank you for commenting - we appreciate it. No spam or marketing comments will be published.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.