How to say no – and how pressure can be pain, discomfort – or it can be information


How to say no – and how pressure can be pain, discomfort – or it can be information

I have had a few questions around how you can say “no” to a horse without taking away the horse’s willingness to “try”.  Most of us have had the experience of being told “NO!” in a way that makes us totally uninspired to try anything for that person or in the environment again .  However, most of us have also had other experiences of “no” that were not that “aversive”: There is a big difference between “NO!”, a softer “nuh-uh, that’s not it..” and the even softer “hmm, not quite there yet…”

I often talk to students about replacing the “that’s right, that’s wrong” mindset with one from a game many of us played as children – -“warmer/colder”

Why does this matter?

Well, what really matters is that our words affect our mindset – which then affects our body language, tone – and how our horse perceives us.  When most of us say “no” – -however slow and kind, our tone and body language are very clear – this is not a positive rewarding moment for our horse.  Now for many horses this won’t make any difference—but for those horses sensitive to energy, emotions and feelings – well, this no might as well be shouted from the rooftops, and they could well shut down or overreact the other way.

Constantly being told no, however nicely, can erode confidence in horses as well as humans

When we replace the “no” mindset with the game of “you’re getting warmer!” our whole body language changes, it becomes a game to us AND our horse – and in both of us the willingness to join in and try to find the desired response stays strong.

In fact, this whole discussion of how to say no without demotivating your horse, or yourself – is closely related to how we communicate to our horses in the first place.

Many of us use headcollars and halters with lead ropes – and there has been some discussion on facebook and other groups about how the pressure/release approach to teaching things is inherently painful for the horse.

So, what about pressure – does it work because it’s pain?  discomfort – or maybe it works because it’s giving the horse information? Just like the difference between “NO!”  “nuh-uh” and “you’re getting warmer….

Let me clarify

If I want to teach you to move your arm away from me when I touch you I can do a few things:

–          I can hold a treat out to “lure” you to move –

–          I can wait for you to move the arm – and reward the behaviour and then put it on cue

Both of these are pretty pure positive reinforcement approaches


–          I could use a sharp object, like a drawing pin, and jab you with it to make you move

–          I could poke you with my finger to make you uncomfortable enough to move

These can both be considered negative reinforcement (the stimulus is removed when you responds)  but are more a form of punishment (if you DONT move you get punished with the stimulus)


There is another option – I could gently take your arm in my hand, with a friendly, soft feel that you welcome because of our existing relationship – when you feel my touch you will look at me, asking “what would you like me to do?” and I use the pressure of my arm on yours to SHOW you not just that I would like you to move your arm – but how and where I would like you to move your arm.


In this case, I am technically using negative reinforcement – because you are moving away from the pressure and the release of pressure is teaching you.  Or am I using positive reinforcement – because you welcome my touch and I give a little rub whenever I release?

Hmmm interesting…

Of all the options – I prefer the last one, because in my opinion it is that last one which is helping set you up for success the most.

And THAT is my criteria for working with horses OR humans.

Not which training method is best – -but what can I do to make this as EASY as possible for this horse or human to understand and do

And not just NOW , but long term (which means that anything I do mustn’t trigger armouring – as that will reduce the ability to sustain the learning, and it also mustn’t trigger learned helplessness, as that ALSO reduces the ability to sustain learning.

In this scenario, that last option, where I use pressure to guide you to where I would like you to go, where I give you the information you need to be totally successful, and reward you for a desired response – THAT is where the most learning, and the most sustainable learning occurs.  In this case the touch isn’t about dominance, or being the alpha  -it’s just about giving information.

B.F. Skinner, famous for his research into learning theory – developed the concept of “near-errorless learning”.  What a concept – this is creating a learning environment where you never have to say “no” because the student doesn’t make errors… it makes the whole issue of whether we say no or not – irrelevant! How do you do this?

First, you break the activity down into chunks small enough to work on and “present information logically”.  Then as Skinner says – you need to use hinting, prompting, suggesting and so on – “derived from an analysis of the behaviours” – in other words, you need to HELP them find the desired response –by giving then helpful information as they are doing the activity.  In Skinners work, prompting was used to CREATE and DEVELOP the desired response – people were not just left to find it by themselves, unguided…..

Then, you reinforce every correct response with immediate feedback/rewards,  Then you gradually remove the rewards – which leads to the psychological outcome of the extrinsic rewards being replaced by intrinsic ones – and the behaviour becomes internally driven and motivated.  This is called Fading.

So, in good old learning theory, giving prompts and information is an excellent way to move towards errorless learning – and if the pressure is received positively, with interest and a “thank you for letting me know” – then that will create a great learning situation.


Someone once asked me but HOW do I teach something without the option of increasing the pressure?  Surely a horse only responds to pressure because he knows you are going to INCREASE it if he doesn’t respond?

Good question:  there ARE some ways — and often it is about breaking the learning down into smaller chunks to help the horse understand.  So if I am asking my horse to, for example, lower their head following the feel on the halter, I will ask with a light pressure, trying to use the pressure to indicate what I would like them to do. So I would put a light pressure on the halter, then “comb” the rope a bit.  Then instead of increasing the pressure, I will assume my horse is trying to work out what I want them to do (because I have previously established a willing relationship through meeting my horse’s needs to safety, comfort, food and play) and so there is no point increasing pressure – what I need to do is help my horse understand what I am asking.  So as I ask with the halter, I will place my hand on the back of my horse’s head and let her feel the weight of it – when she moves her head away from my hand, I will release and reward with praise, rubs or something.  So instead of increasing pressure, I use a different way of communicating to clarify my original request.

In the same way if I want my horse to back up and I wiggle the rope – and the horse doesn’t realise what I am asking, I don’t HAVE to increase the pressure on the rope and end up waving it around like a lunatic.  I can just tap the ground near her feet, or add a verbal cue she already knows, or send energy to a foot using my bubble – and when she moves back, I release and reward – and now we have a light wiggle of the rope meaning “please move back”.

Just some ideas there – after all, I know how I would feel if the only certain thing in my life was that if I didn’t do something right rightaway, more pressure was on its way!  In these cases, you can see that my focus is not on “making the horse do it”, but rather on “how can I help the horse understand what I am asking” – these two mindsets are VERY different.

Of course for this to work, there has to be a pre-existing relationship of the horse WANTING to work with me, of WANTING to try…and that – well that is a matter of brain power – what do I need to do with THIS horse, on THIS day, so that he or she WANTS to be with me, work with me and try for me….

Maybe that’s a topic for another blog post – motivation!

Meanwhile, what do YOU do to build that sort of relationship?

Yours, in confidence




18 thoughts on “How to say no – and how pressure can be pain, discomfort – or it can be information

  1. Hum, the other day I had a lesson with a new instructor and was trying to work out afterwards why it was that I enjoyed it so much and felt so comfortable learning with her. I boiled it down to the fact that she could spot the things that I needed to know and help me with them by feeding in appropriate and timely information. She didn’t try to engineer things so that I was reinventing the wheel for myself (I probably would have designed it square! lol). She recognised that I didn’t know what I didn’t know and set about helping me so that I didn’t waste time and effort or get myself or my horse disheartened and frustrated. In essence she set me up for success by feeding me information. She didn’t let me get myself in a muddle and feel like a failure, she guided me and encouraged me, she also tutored me to do the same with my horse and a lot of learning took place as a result.

    You summed it up when you said … “In this scenario, that last option, where I use pressure to guide you to where I would like you to go, where I give you the information you need to be totally successful, and reward you for a desired response – THAT is where the most learning, and the most sustainable learning occurs. In this case the touch isn’t about dominance, or being the alpha -it’s just about giving information.”

    Brilliant blog, thank you for sharing and making me feel that perhaps I’ve been on the right track.

  2. Hi Cathy,
    Just wanted to say that you can use other directive prompts than pressure.
    Using a target gives the animal a lot of information but with less risk of becoming too directive-I won’t say no risk as its possible to be bossy with a target too.
    I would say both scenarios would actually be easier to achieve with a target though-both the head lowering and the backing.
    Another point bearing in mind is that horses actually feel empowered by being rewarded for their own ideas.
    So its always worth spending some of your training time using shaping as you describe above-and targeting comes in really useful here because if the horse doesn’t offer anything you can always offer him the target to prevent him becoming frustrated.
    Not that Im saying theres anything wrong with using light, non escalating pressure as part of the training, I think its very useful 🙂

    • Hi Sarah — thanks for posting this comment — and if you have any links that would help people see how targeting and shaping can work, that would be very helpful, as sometimes it is hard to picture how positive reinforcement actually works, step by step — this blog is about confidence, and anything that helps people and horses feel confident is welcome here!!


    • I think that sadly there is one area of learning theory which tends to be forgotten when talking about training generally and that is classical conditioning. Reflex learning opens up a whole new perspective on training tools and why the majority of cross over horses find pressure and release aversive. And of course reflexes are subconscious, they trigger neural pathways in the brain those reflexes are readily associated with other neutral stimuli. On presentation of those conditioned stimuli, they subconsciously trigger the same neural pathways…often fear. The history is vitally important in understanding how something is perceived by the subject.

      • Hi Equi libre — you are right – the classical conditioning that means that other things get ATTACHED to a stimulus without being operantly conditioned is important to understand — however, even without knowing the history you can read the horse in front of you and “retrain” as long as you have a good knowledge of the area. A lot of my recent work has been “undoing” behaviours that have been accidentally conditioned, before we can move on to making plans and programmes for shaping new behaviours. In my experience it is not so much the cross over horse that has the issues, they live enough in the moment to reprogramme quite easily — it is the cross over human who gets things confused 🙂


        • Absolutely 🙂 a good understanding of the extremely subtle body language signs is what gives the negative discriminative stimulus away. I am afraid we will have to respectfully disagree on the cross over horses though 🙂 past learning has an enormous effect but in such situations counter conditioning those stimuli can take quite a while.

          • one path for more effective counter-conditioning is to change the process completely — and bring in the horse’s more conscious processes — this requires a very different approach and is focused on engaging the horse’s MIND at all times, vs cue-response mechanisms — this leads to a horse that might START to spook or react — but then stops themselves and thinks things through and finds other ways of coping — it is complicated but can be done and is often far better, safer and easier for the horse as it helps the horse find a WAY of dealing with all reactive/reflex learning rather than having to counter condition each separate cue….


            • Im not sure I understand your explanation? Which areas of the brain are you talking about? The reflexes trigger emotional circuitry in which neuroscience has given us a lot of understanding. Id be interested to understand more about the scientific studies behind your perspective.

              The fear responses at very low level stimulation don’t involve reactions or spooks, they are such things as tension in the muzzle and abive the eye and jaw, head height, respiratory rate etc.

              Many thanks

              • I agree, I was talking of gross signs like spooks etc to stay accessible, but you are absolutely right to talk of lip wrinkles, nostril tightening etc as the signs.
                It is hard to explain the approach — I suppose the most similar thing I can say is it it like human CBT — cognitive behavioural therapy where you engage the conscious mind in re-setting the unconscious and subconscious responses


              • Just another thing — please feel free to put a specific link to your page on here in the comments thread — and in fact I welcome guest blogs: ANY approach that can offer help to people and their horses with regards to confidence is positively invited here and I have a midweek slot open for guest blogs on any confidence related topic. I would love readers to have access to as many resources as possible and, having seen your own blog, think it would be great to have a guest blog from you if you have time?


  3. Very interesting Cathy. In my quest for knowlege, I have been following a discussion group that uses only positive reinforcement. But to me it had a few holes in it’s application.(ok, so maybe my skill level is missing something too) Your alternative seems more logical, and rewards and acknowleges the partnership that I want to develop with my horse. Thanks also for good descriptions of both negative and positive reinforcement.

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