Release and Relief

Breagha (Bree)

I think we learn and go through life much like a pendulum; we swing all the way to one side and then we swing the opposite way before realizing that the middle is where balance and skill lie.

When we begin learning about horses, we are at the apex of knowing nothing. The only time we are taught to release is when asking a horse to stop and he does, or after he turns. 

Many of us know when we are teaching horses any new skill, we must provide a release of pressure to show them they got it right.  I had been doing this to some small degree from the time I began riding as a child. Shortly after I began training horses, I encountered a way to be more conscious about it at clinic given by a well-known horseman. 

When I started systematically applying the release, it worked really well. It wasn’t too long before I came to the realization that if a little release was good, more was better. This included completely letting go of my reins if the horse I was working with did whatever it was I was asking. I would stop all work immediately if they hit on the right answer. You name it, I released it. The pendulum had swung opposite of where I began when I learned to ride; instead of infrequent releases, I now released for everything. 

For a couple of decades, I continued to practice and refine my skill of releasing. I was always searching for that middle space where the release was not too far one way or another, but right in the middle. I learned that horses are sensitive beyond our wildest imaginings, that big releases were (most of the time) not necessary and indeed could create an unintended message.

But it wasn’t until we spent some time recently with Dr. Steve Peters (neuropsychologist, horseman, and co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship) that he mentioned in passing that the horse must experience both release and relief for optimal learning.

If I were a horse, I would’ve pricked my ears forward and thrown my mane in the wind.

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Photo: Allyson DeCanio

It turns out, that the more time a horse is given to process a new skill, the more time there is for the nervous system as a whole to move into a state of relief. The chemicals that were present during the pressure of learning or doing something new dissipate, and the feel-good chemicals, specifically Dopamine, get released. Simply put, the greater the relief (the more Dopamine), the greater the learning.

How do we achieve this hallowed state? By giving our horses time. 

Time is exactly what I had to give my little Arab mare, Bree. She had come to us as a very green seven year old, whose majority of riding experiences had been people hopping on and making her run.  On our first working day together, I had saddled her up with no intention of riding. I did, however, put my foot in the stirrup and prepare to get on.

She responded by, ever so slightly, rocking back on her hindquarters, not-so-slightly pinning her ears, and then trying to leave the ground like a rocket.

“Huh,” I thought. “That was informative.”

For the rest of that day, and the following weeks as we taught clinics, I would randomly put my foot in the stirrup on either side and prepare to get on. Because we were doing this work while I was teaching, sometimes we could practice a lot and sometimes not once during a whole hour.

I was surprised when each day she showed less anxiety and a need to run. Every day there was a monumental improvement. I thought, “Well, she’s an Arab and they are noted for their smarts.” I thought, “Well, the magnesium oxide we have her on is helping her to stay calmer.” I thought “Horses are amazing and brilliant.”

Now, all of these are true. And every thought I had about the “why” she was settling so quickly after five years of being inadvertently taught to run when the rider’s foot hit the stirrup, was only part of the picture.

It’s been almost ten years since Bree taught me all she did, but when Dr. Peters spoke about horses needing a release and relief, she was the first horse who popped into my mind.

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Photo: Bo Reich

Because during those weeks when she and I could only work together sporadically on this one skill, the circumstances had conspired to give her a lot of time.

By being given a lot of time, she was allowed to settle from a chronically stressed state to a more relaxed state, which allowed her learning to be more firmly cemented. Because horses learn best when pressure is low and not ongoing, she could integrate the information and start to have confidence in our interactions. 

I often think of Bree and how far we got together, how close we became. After the initial weeks of struggle, she turned out to be a horse I could do anything with; working cattle, trail riding, teaching lessons with, switching from riding in a bit to a bosal, and all around trusting. She’s a little mare with a very big heart. 

Bree and Crissi

Horses seek comfort. Horses seek a quiet way of feeling and being and going. Despite our perception that we don’t have any time and our busy lives are too full, we could stop and consider that it is within all of our power (as riders and horse owners) to give the horse one of the most important things they need to feel confident and peaceful with us. 





34 responses to “Release and Relief”

  1. Very useful and informative as usual! And it applies to my situation right now. I severely sprained my ankle and haven’t been able to ride my new mare, a green 4yo OTTB, for 2 months. So we just hang out, do a little groundwork and hand walking, and she is coming to understand that I’m not just about getting in the saddle, and is relaxing as a result. I plan to continue this slow progression when I can ‘get my foot in the stirrup’ again. She’s so young, even if I’m not, so feel like we have all the time in the world.

    1. You absolutely do have all the time in the world with her. I love that you’re looking at this as an opportunity, instead of a setback. 🙂

  2. Love, love, love this article!!!

    1. Thank you thank you Kim! 🙂

  3. The most exciting thing about this point in time with horses is that science is defining why less is more. science is proving affirmative training! Great blog, Crissi, and a great mare as well. Thanks!

    1. Thank YOU, Anna! I am excited by the same things; the ways we have noticed that horses are more comfortable being treated now have verifiable reasons. Science isn’t everything, but it sure is reassuring sometimes.

  4. Excellent blog Crissi! Nice to see the support through science. A good reminder for me to slow down, feel, observe, ponder and learn.

    1. Thank you Sabrina! It is indeed incredibly affirming to have what we have known for years (horses do better with more time for learning rather than less) be also backed by science. And it’s very good news for the horse. 🙂

  5. I took a clinic this fall where we talked a lot about release and relief. And how we need to release mental pressure as well as physical. All too often when we release we are already thinking about the next thing, or how we can refine what just happened.
    And so although there is physical release, there is no mental relief.
    With my very sensitive gelding I have found his changes to be much more solid when I work on giving relieve from mental as well as physical pressure.

    1. Thanks, MaryAnn – all very true!

  6. Hi Crissi, brilliant article as always, love yer wee mare (even if she is an arab, she can’t help that LOL!) Just kidding!!!!

    1. Mo, yer a wee scallywag and I love ya for it! 😘

  7. Great info Crissi & good timing for me with some work I’m doing at the moment to remind me I can take the time to introduce something new slowly. Thank you!

    1. Going slowly is definitely more advantageous. 😃 Thank you!

  8. Loved this and needed to hear it again! Thanks:) B

    Barbara M Lane
    Diplomate Jungian Analyst
    720 220 4401

    1. Thank you Barbara! Happy Holidays!

  9. What I love so much about your articles is that the pedagogy is so universal it can be applied to other animals and humans too. It’s very useful for some problems I’m having at the moment. Thank you! 🙂

    1. I am always fascinated by the ways in which we are all alike, rather than our (sometimes blatantly obvious) differences. Thank you for commenting on this!

  10. Finding the balance is a beautiful place to be. Love the article. Isn’t it lovely how a small comment can shine the light and bring out the truth.

    1. Yes, it is, my friend. Happy Holidays to you!

  11. Thank you! I have a 7 year old Arabian mare and this fits her too a T! Grateful for your words!

    1. Thank you for letting me know, Pam. Happy Holidays to you and your awesome Arabian. 🙂

  12. Well my health issues came to a head after moving to New Mexico. I needed to get off a medication that Was based on a misdiagnosis and addictive. I was housebound for 5 months and couldn’t take care of Cassidy. I decided the best thing for her was to go back to Pegasus. My heart was broken, we were doing great, she was a joy to ride out and we were learning together, bonded. She was happy when I was with her. Bored when she was in her 80×100 paddock with horses around but not close for interaction. A horsewoman at the stables was interested in adopting her, took her to the arena to let her run. Cassidy went full speed ahead and jumped out of the arena, clearing it no problem. She calmly found a patch of grass to eat.

    Allyson let me know that Cassidy settled in immediately, their trainer fell in love with her instantly, a mom and daughter are interested in adopting her. They have already adopted two horses from Pegasus. And Cassidy is Miss April for their 2019 calendar. My health is improving and I am at peace with not having my dream horse. I’m so happy I had this opportunity with Cassidy and with you and Mark.

    Thank you and Happy Trails Ann Netzow


    1. Ann, it is wonderful to hear from you. I am glad you found a way to take care of yourself, and Cassidy. May your healing continue and may you find happiness in the joy you shared with your horses. Hugs–Crissi

  13. What a fascinating post. I’m going to spend some time thinking on this and figuring out how to apply it. I am also looking into that bood. 🙂

    1. Hi Teresa – thank you! I find brain stuff fascinating too. 😃

  14. Loved this ! Thanks for sharing

    Sent from my iPad

  15. This makes so much sense. And I think we need that processing time, too. So often, I’ve hit a wall with some work problem, left it for a day then returned to have the answer pop into my head as easy as anything. Thank you for putting it into words.

    1. Yes, you are right. There are many ways our brains are similar. 🙂

  16. Thanks for this wonderful reminder. Time is a gift we all need.
    We just have to remember to give and share it.
    The mutual benefit is astounding when time is given to all.

    Such a good read:)

    1. Thank you Shelley! Have a very Happy New Year. 🙂

  17. I look forward to your posts so much. Thank you for writing them. This one, like all the others, strikes a chord in me and what I am working on and realizing with my horses, myself, and life in general. All good wishes to you in the new year!

    1. Thank you, Meg – that’s really nice to hear. Happy New Year to you and your herd!

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