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  • Writer's pictureGiulia Zanone Orth, MSc.

Never Escalate Pressure

How can we teach a young horse new cues? How does a young child learn new words?

In our work with horses, we sometimes see professional trainers (and non professional trainers aka horse owners and handlers) go to a place of "escalating pressure," which means intensifying a cue until the horse responds to it in the way we want them to respond. I want to share a story here with you that illustrated this process for me from a human perspective.

In 2005, I was dropping off my 4-year-old son off to his first day at a French-speaking preschool in Switzerland. In the anxiety of the moment, I forgot to give him his slippers (pantoufles), which students were required to wear in the classroom. Realizing my mistake as I headed home, I made a U-turn to deliver the goods.

As I climbed the school staircase, I could hear a “lady” yelling louder and louder the same words over and over, “ou sont tes pantoufles?” I turned a corner and saw my little boy standing in the corridor outside his classroom staring, razzled, at the teacher’s face, which was inches from his own.

This boy who had been with me almost every moment of his life and who loved to whisper his most urgent needs in my ear. This boy, who'd only been yelled at a few times in his life, "Hot! Hot!" when he'd reached for the stove or "Ouch!" when he'd pulled on the dog's hair, was now stunned and speechless in front of a frustrated and incomprehensible Swiss teacher. He reminded me a little of horses who will brace in the face of a new cue applied as intense pressure.

So I reminded the teacher that my son spoke very a little French on this first day of school, and I suggested we pair him up with a translator in the classroom, just until he could learn the routines and commonly used words. The translator turned out to be another little boy, Gabriel, who was bilingual. That boy helped my son find his way around in a way he could understand...and guess what? They became best friends.

Sometimes, our horses could use a translator. Sometimes, we humans think that our cues will be clearer if we turn up the volume on pressure louder and louder. How does it feel to the horse to be learning in this paradigm of escalating pressure? Does it allow the horse to figure out a response in a calm and relaxed state? Does it set up the horse to respond to the lightest cue? Does it create trust? No, no, and no.

Horse trainer and author John Saint Ryan told me that his mentor, Tom Dorrance, would offer suggestions and then add, "Try this and see if it works.........if it doesn't.....well try something else and see if that doesn't work," which seems like a far more sensitive and intelligent approach than yelling in the learner's face.

There are a million different joyful ways to help our horses learn our communication signals, the only obstacle is our own imagination.

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