In this article you will learn how tensions limit performance, and affect number of behaviors horses can offer due to skeletal muscle tensions. You will also discover how and why many training approaches, based both on pressure/release and positive reinforcement, focus on asking the horse to show red cards, until they start to look like a black card, and what dangers does it bring with it… You will discover what is the GLUE that connects acting with passion and health, with top performance in sport.
You cannot pull a Black Card from a Red Cards hand
In the traditional horse training transitions are inducing tensions in the horse’s body. The source of the tension is that the human understanding of how to make the horse move faster is in most of he cases: “I have to give the horse a very good reason in order for him to move”. The training methods differ in technical details of what this reason can be.
We have, for example, the so called “Lesson of the legs” (which is a combination of applying the pressure of the legs with the action of the whip), and positive reinforcement based techniques of teaching the horse to move on the voice cue to get a treat. In all of these cases, the trainer believes that the horse needs to have “a very good reason” in order to want to move.
In this place, I will allow myself a digression, that such an attitude may be caused by the fact that most of the horses with whom people are dealing are simply ill, and don’t want to move due to physical problems, discomfort, and pain originating from either hooves, teeth, or back. Or all of them at the same time.
The trainer expects the horse to make a beautiful, balanced transition to canter, and at the same time believes that in order to move in a beautiful, balanced and energetic way the horse has to have “a very good reason” to do that. The trainer believes that without a “very good reason” the horse wouldn’t want to move. Isn’t it interesting? Because of this belief, the trainer tries to give the horse “a very good reason”, and is making the horse more tensed. The more the horse is tensed, the less he can do, and the more disengaged, unbalanced and dull the horse becomes.
A tensed horse can do less
Why is that so? Let me explain: Tensed muscles cannot take a part in fulfilling transition to another gait. If you disagree with this example, please clench your feet and try transition from walk to jog. Your feet’s clenched muscles won’t be able to participate in the transition, no matter what a good reason to do it you give yourself, and no matter how hard you try.
The horse is not willing to transit from trot to canter not because he wants to preserve the energy, disrespect you or disobey the command, but because he is already tensed in trot. Because the horse is tensed while trotting, he is out of balance and tensed, his balance is on the forehand and his steps are hasty — from such a trot transition to canter becomes very difficult if not impossible for a horse. The trainer sees it and is afraid that the canter won’t happen. A trainer believes he has to give a very good reason for the horse to do what the trainer expects from him. But the horse couldn’t canter, not because he didn’t want to but because cantering was outside of the range of the actions possible for him in the moment of transition.
Again, you cannot pull a black card from a red cards hand.
When your horse becomes tensed, making an effortless and smooth transition is no longer an option. Imagine that you want a black card from your horse, but your horse holds only red cards. He cannot give you a black card, because he doesn’t have one. You can click and treat your horse for every single step, but when your horse is tensed it won’t happen, or it will happen in a very dwarfed manner just resembling the real smooth transition. The same happens when the horse is not feeling well due to illness or pain. You can click for behavior, but the condition of the body won’t allow the wanted behavior to occur.
You won’t get a black card from a hand of red cards.
On the other hand, Pressure/Release Training tells the horse that option of “not cantering” is not possible. To follow the red card / black card analogy the trainer says: “Keep on showing me all your red cards, and I will shape the behavior using pressure/release”. At the end of the process, the trainer gets something that looks like “a black card”, but it’s not a black card. The truth is that the horse is still not transiting: the horse will move his feet until he transits, but in the horse’s head he was not making a transition.
The horse was showing red cards, until they looked like a black card to the trainer.
Pressure/Release oriented training adds tension to the moment of transition: In the moment of the transition the additional pressure is applied or taken away. But when we look at it from this perspective, we can see that the Positive Reinforcement oriented training adds tension to the moment of transition as well: In the moment of the transition the reinforcement appears or not.
This situation excites the horse, in the same way as possibility of gain or loss excites the gambler in the casino. And excitement is a form of tension.
Gamblers among Horses
Scientifically speaking, excitement is a moment when electric current goes through the muscles and excites them to flex. We can say that the muscle is excited, when it’s tensed because of the stimulation by the electric current.
It’s amazing how this simple concept of muscle excitement transited to the every-day life language losing it’s meaning. Now, we only say “excited”, and except of that we know it when we see it, we hardly ever associate it with muscle tensions and other reasons behind it. In effect, we have very big problems with dealing with excited kids, dogs, horses or even our own excitement (how many times you couldn’t seep during the night before a very an event you feared or an event you looked forward to a lot?).
When people say that their horse, or dog, or even a child is excited, or even themselves are excited, they know how it feels, and they know how to recognize it, but they don’t know what causes it. Therefore it’s so easy to become excited (because most of animals and humans are very tensed and have many Residual Tensions in their bodies), and at the same time it’s so hard to stop being excited, to drop excitement and to just relax.
Tensions that are the root of excitement are the root reason why so many horses trained with positive reinforcement oriented methods can still be “pulling faces” — showing signs of irritation, excitement, overstimulation — while being asked to perform a transition, or do an exercise. Excitement (tension) connected with the possibility of presence or lack of the reward coming is in them, in the same way as the tension is present in a horse trained with pressure and tensed because of the fear of possible punishment.
Body doesn’t have opinions, body has the FEEL
From the perspective of the human mind these two situations are very different, and we would always say that uncertainty about the gain (reward), is much better than uncertainty about the loss (punishment). But the body interprets both uncertainties in the same way: as tensions. The body is tensed in the exact same way when it expects possible reward, and when it expects possible punishment. These tensions lead to the same illnesses, and the same facial and body expressions. From the perspective of the body, uncertainty about the gain (reward) is tension about the possible loss, and the uncertainty about the loss (punishment) is a tension about the possible gain (“I have to make the exercise work this time, do I know how do it?”).
It’s very interesting how both horses trained with clicker training, and horses trained with pressure/release become tensed, just differently, and how these tensions affect their performance if the trainer hasn’t noticed first signs of tensions and hasn’t looked into them first, before starting the training. My perspective is, that when it happens it’s a sign that the trainer was tensed as well, in the both cases because he was afraid the behavior won’t happen otherwise (the horse won’t have a reason good enough to perform).
How sad it is that because of our tensions, and our inability to enjoy taking actions for the pleasure of taking actions caused by these tensions, we believe that a person or a horse wouldn’t act if not forced to it either by possible reward, or possible punishment.
I often hear from people reaching out to me for advice in training: “OK, so I have taught my horse how to trot on a voice cue with positive reinforcement and treats, but my horse looks IRRITATED and UNHAPPY! What went wrong?! My horse should be happy, after all she is getting treats for that!”. Yes, your horse is doing the behavior, but the reason why she wasn’t eager to transit in the first place is still there — your horse is still tensed at the level of skeletal muscles, or maybe even at the level of the smooth muscles (and then, it’s almost certain that his internal organs: liver and stomach hurt). Your horse kept on showing you red cards, until they looked like a black card, but he is not able to show you a real black card, because he is still tensed.
Horses don’t go to WORK!
When I hear people speak about training horses, they often refer to work, and they explain to other people, that a trainer needs to pay the horse for work (rewards), or that he has to teach the horse good working ethics (punishment). When you listen to people speaking about horses, you usually learn very little about horses, but a lot about people. Just because someone is convinced that he wouldn’t do anything or wouldn’t work if he was not paid, or that he wouldn’t engage into action if someone else (a father, a teacher figure or a sense of responsibility) wasn’t the trigger behind it, it doesn’t mean that this is the truth.
In fact, many people who were burned-out because of such situations (going to work and working while being very tensed) going on for years, take a break or a year off, and within this time they discover their real true passion — something they can do no matter if they are paid or not for doing that, and no mater if someone or something is a forcing power making you do that. These people relaxed during their time off, and thanks to that they started taking actions emerging from relaxation. Again, because of complexity of our language, and complications that this complexity creates, the reason behind this situation becomes blurred. People say that they have found their passion, that they have found something they were born to do, that they discovered their life-calling. But in fact they relaxed, and started taking actions in state of relaxation, and taking these actions relaxed them even more.
Looking at many life situations and life events from this perspective simplifies a lot and would allow many people to look differently at their work life and at the work life at their horses.
Remember, if you don’t like your work and you do it only for the money or because of fear of what can happen if you don’t do it, it means that you are tensed while working. It’s also very possible that your work makes you more tensed as well. After all, sitting 8h a day in front of the computer has tremendous tensing impact at the person’s body, if compared to, for example, gardening or traveling, or teaching yoga.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you must leave your well-paid job as a data analysts in the global bank, and start permaculture project in Portugal ;-) it means that in order to feel better about your work, and continue doing it with pleasure and ease for your body you must learn few Relaxation Techniques that will allow you to release your tensions prior, during and after performance, and that will work under the specific tensions that your work induce on you.
For example, During the Optimal Performance Program we teach horses how to relax under SIX MOST COMMON tensions that they are exposed to. We teach horses Relaxation Patterns that they can present upon:
- Restrictions of Food,
- Restrictions of Movement,
- Orders, and
- Elevated Heart Rate.
Teaching Conscious Relaxation
But why do we have to teach horses how to relax under these tensions, if the relaxation is a natural response of the body? Relaxation is a natural response of the body for a relaxed body. A tensed body cannot find it’s path to relaxation. You can see it when you look at your own life and how in moments of big pressure and stress you can remember how you used to be relaxed a year ago, or during the holidays in Greece, but at the same time if you were told “OK, so you had moments of big relaxation before, now just do the same! Relax!” it will be quite impossible, because you don’t know, you haven’t consciously learned the path to relaxation.
During Optimal Performance Program we focus on developing body’s ability to consciously recognize moments of spontaneous relaxations, and then turn them into a technique that the body can follow even if the mind tells the body to tense. It’s quite fascinating how easy this process can be, with right tools. It’s because body wants to relax, only doesn’t always know how to do it.
Your body seeks Relaxation
You can see how your body is seeking this relaxation, and how much it needs it if you look at how much you feel you need to smoke during your work, have a glass of wine after it, or how much you crave unhealthy but “comforting” foods after the long day in the office. Your body seeks release from stress, but it’s already tensed enough to not be able to do it without external trigger. This external trigger can be anything from alcohol, carbohydrates, to even drugs or causing one self pain (You disagree? Have you heard about people cutting themselves to release pain, or have you seen horses who kick their stomach or bite their sides due to pain?). But fortunately we can do it otherwise, we can use a special Technique to teach the horse’s body how to recognize that the muscles are tensing (even if the body is at rest) and to scan the body to release all of the tensions that are not required in the present moment. This Technique is Optimal Performance Program.
Optimal Performance Program Training teaches the horse how to deepen relaxation in the exact moment of, or just before, the work (transition). In such a situation the moment of transition becomes the moment of relaxation for your horse. The horse relaxes during or just before the transition, and then he can offer more possibilities: left canter, right canter, trot, walk, or even levade. You can choose.
Thanks to relaxation in the exact moment of transition, the horse becomes instantly more balanced, straight and through the body while entering the new gait. The horse feels his body better, and this encourages him to try the transition again, and again, and again. And again! When something makes you feel more relaxed, you simply start to enjoy doing it, and the more you enjoy doing something while staying relaxed, the better you become at doing it.
This is the ultimate secret behind the success of people who act because they have discovered their “passion”.
Passion is a state of Ultimate Relaxation
No matter what you do, don’t put on yourself the pressure of having to drop it and start looking for your passion in order to feel relief. If you are tensed, nothing can bring you passion and you won’t feel it, even if you push yourself to find it really hard. In fact, pushing oneself is a form of a tension, and is quite opposite to Relaxation.
Start from relaxation at whatever you are doing now, and you will quickly discover that the passion you were looking for, has found you at the exact place you are now.
Thanks to Optimal Performance Program you can now teach the very same to your horse: to consciously relax shortly before taking an action, and to find his passion in whatever he is doing or has to do today. It’s just a matter of increasing relaxation to allow the feeling or relief, happiness, and passion to come!
Just look at my 5yo horse Darcy and how much he is enjoying his effortless, passionate and RELAXED trot – canter transitions:
Optimal Performance Program is a breakthrough in training 4-Legged Athletes: it’s a scientifically based technique of teaching horses, dogs and humans how to release their skeletal muscle tensions consciously prior, during and after the performance. Usually these processes are unconscious, and happen spontaneously, therefore a 4-legged Athlete doesn’t have access to them when he needs it most: during the performance. Optimal Performance teaches horses how to do their Relaxation Technique shortly prior to action and during it in order to act better, think clearer, be less afraid, learn quicker new skills, and have a bigger access to the skills they already have.
Optimal Performance Program for HORSES: Self-Study Edition
Optimal Performance Program for HORSES: ONE on ONE Guided:
Optimal Performance Program for DOGS: