I want to be clear that I have never been to horsemanship school. I don’t know all the fancy words or technical definitions. I’ve only spent years and years out with horses, hundreds of them, in pastures, in fields, in barns, and on mountains. I’ve never been a professional horse trainer. I’ve never trained a horse to compete in dressage or equitation. I’ve spent very little time on horseback in arenas, but countless hours with horses in open spaces, learning their language. It was after my first few experiences with being able to move horses in and around their stalls while mucking, with just the smallest gestures, that I stumbled upon “pressure and release”. I’m not even sure those are the best words for it.
Pressure and release is far more subtle than applying pressure and releasing. That could be too easily abused until it looks more like fear and avoidance. Any useful pressure is not to create fear or avoidance in the horse, but to signal an appropriate new position you’d like the horse to assume and create a comfortable space for her to assume that new position. You may apply pressure to the space around a horse which creates a new shape to her personal space and which encourages her to move into a new position which will reestablish the personal space she was sensing before your involvement. This pressure is very subtle, and never utilizes fear. Perhaps connect and draw would be better words. Horses are incredibly nuanced creatures that can pick up on the lightest cues. They’re amazing animals.
For example, let’s take look at a request to “move forward”. There are many situations where asking your horse to move forward, or sideways, is useful. You may be asking them to walk on, to step into water, to step over to make space for another person or horse, or for a faster gait, among other things. I would use my own body, leg, voice, or even gaze, to create a bending in on my horse’s subtly sensed space which she would respond to by moving into a new position. I show her a new reality I’d like her to engage with, and she engages. She trusts me, knowing I’d never hurt her. As our relationship progresses, I can stand in the middle of a round pen and ask for a change of speed or direction with just a look or a half step to one side or the other.
Lest you think I’m crazy, just think of the way a stallion engages with his herd of mares and colts. He doesn’t invoke fear, yet they will follow him anywhere. He can even tell them to go to a different field with the shake of a head and a bend of his neck. Horses are built this way. They see. They hear. And they can feel the space around them, even the movement of the air around them, in ways that seem magical to us humans. A true horseman simply plugs into this sensual grid and speaks with the horse’s very being.
It takes a tremendous amount of patience to work with a young horse so he learns to trust you being connected to him in this way. He must sense that you are always a safe place, and that you can be counted on to always tell the truth. Horses are so very good at knowing when someone is lying. In the early stages of training, I’ll use all sorts of would-be-scary things to show him that I will never lie to him. Tarps, whips, leather straps, blankets, cowbells, tree branches, leaves, etc. are all useful ways to show him that I can see beyond what scares him and that he can trust me. I let him explore the movement and the sensations and always bring him back to a peaceful center where he knows he is safe to move into exploration again.
Once he knows I’ll never lie to him, I can then start working with his space. I can use a branch for it’s length, as an extension of my arm, to change the feel of the space around him. He knows I’ll never hit him with it. He knows I’ll never lie to him. So, when I move the branch slowly closer to his haunches and my other arm to show an opening in front of him, he knows I’m just showing him the new position I’d like him to take. When he moves into that new position I don’t chase him with the branch to keep him moving forward, I just assume he’ll keep moving. If he doesn’t, I connect to the space again. It doesn’t take long for him to see what it is I’m asking.
Changing gait, stopping, and switching direction can all be created with the same technique. And if he’s switching direction by turning towards the fence and I need him turning towards me, I can take a small step back just at that moment when he initiates the turn and it will pull him towards me and give him the space to make the inward spin. Soon, he doesn’t need me to get so close to change the shape of his space. He can feel it with a small step, a slight raising of my arm, just leaning to once side, or even a simple look. We’re in sync now. And now I can begin to draw him in. With a step back and turning my gaze away or even using my arms to motion him to me, I can create a space that draws him towards me. With just a little more work, he’ll follow me anywhere.
In open spaces, it works the same. I can use trees, rocks, bushes, grass and even the wind to help me see the space he’s in, and I can use my body to change that space and create new possibilities for him. After all, the fence of a round pen is just another way to shape the space. Not all horses respond quickly. Sometimes, because of their own past experiences, it can take hours upon hours of patiently playing with their space for them to trust me. Luckily, I’ve always loved just being around horses in big natural spaces and I never get bored or impatient. Boredom and impatience are lies to a horse, because they belie even our own humanity which horses are innately good at sensing. I would have had to start all over again.
I’m sharing all of this because I’ve only just recently become aware that my experiences with horses have informed my view of God. My God connects with me in the most subtle ways. Always patient. Always honest. Never bored. Still. Small. And he can wait forever until I’m ready to connect with him. If we lose connection, he’s never angry, he’s just always there in an attitude of connection.
And he draws me into his goodness. Inspires me with his love. Shows me a new position to take, a new space to hold. Big. Spacious. Open. Movement. Never frenetic. Never scary. He draws me in and shows me beautiful things.
This is a language I learned out in the woods with horses. Connect and draw. And it’s the way my God speaks to me. I can trust he’ll get me to where I need to be.