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.
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.
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.
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.