In these sessions with Nabokov, we demonstrate two important aspects of relationship: cooperation and repair. In the first video, we work on cooperation and how that differs from compliance. Cooperation is a whole-brain function, and it’s willingly chosen. Compliance is a lower-brain survival function in which choice is taken away. In the second video, we repair our relationship after I’ve made a request more strongly than necessary. In this case, I demonstrate it intentionally, but in life, we make mistakes. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we accidentally come across too strongly—and that doesn’t feel good to the person or horse on the receiving end. But we can actively repair the relationship. In fact, mistakes and repair are a crucial part of building a strong, connected relationship. We both need to know we don’t have to be perfect in order to be okay. We can make an honest mistake and come back stronger.
These principles apply equally to the horse-human relationship and relationships between people.
Essentially, my goal in working with a horse in this way is to build a connected, attuned relationship in which we both feel safe and happy to do the right thing for each other.
Video 1: Cooperation vs. Compliance
In order for us to build a connected relationship, I need to be able to tell the difference between cooperation and compliance. A cooperative horse is self-regulated, calm and connected. He can think about my requests and willingly choose to do what I’ve asked. A compliant horse is on autopilot, down in his survival brain, doing what he’s been commanded to do because he doesn’t feel he has any other option. When a horse is in survival mode, it’s ultimately not good for either the horse or the human.
To learn cooperation, he needs to feel safe trying all three of these responses when I make a request:
Let’s break those down. If he ignores me, that generally means I’m not making the request strongly enough in that moment. So when he ignores, I can raise the pressure—a little bit at a time—until he starts to pay attention and respond more actively. The second option, resistance, simply means he’s trying some wrong answers. It’s important for me not to take this personally or get frustrated. Resistance, seen in a certain light, can be a good thing; it means he’s searching for an answer. And here’s a crucial point: when he resists, I keep the pressure THE SAME. I just maintain the request while he tries to find an answer, and when he starts to find the RIGHT answer, I release the pressure. That way he knows, Ah, that’s what she’s asking for! “Finding the right answer” is another way of referring to cooperation. Once we go through this process together, he comes to understand more and more readily what I’m asking, and he becomes happy to cooperate. When he cooperates, we feel a connection between us, and that’s inherently rewarding for both of us.
To summarize, this is what I’ll do with the pressure in response to his various actions:
Ignoring—> increase the pressure
Resisting—> keep the pressure the same
Cooperating—> release the pressure
As a refresher, pressure is not a negative thing in this context. It’s simply a fact of the universe. We can ask gently or more strongly, but any request is an application of pressure. You can also think of it as energy. When I make a request of Nabokov, I’m sending my body energy towards him.
And something important to note: if I raise the pressure during resistance, he won’t feel safe trying wrong answers anymore. I might get a desired behavior, but it will be compliance, not cooperation. It won’t ultimately be good for either of us.
Horses tend to have a default mode of “I control you, or you control me.” What we’re aiming for instead is “I control me, and you control you.” Through this work, horses can learn to appropriately control themselves, just as humans need to do. When we can both self-regulate and willingly choose to right thing for our relationship, we both feel better, and the connection between us grows.
Video 2: Repair
Mistakes are a fact of life. The important thing is to learn from them. In this video, I demonstrate what happens when I use more pressure than necessary to ask Nabokov to canter. He’s a very sensitive horse, so what feels like a strong request to him might feel like nothing to another horse. As we work on getting to know each other and building our connection, it’s crucial for me to take feedback from him about what he needs. When he tells me I’ve used too much pressure, I can repair the relationship by settling my own energy, then trying again with a more appropriate request—using less pressure, just as he told me he needed.
The process of making mistakes and then repairing the relationship is important for both of us. We both need to know it’s okay not to be perfect—in fact, we don’t even want to be perfect. Striving for perfection is fraught with fear and tension, neither of which helps wellbeing or growth. (See Carol Dweck’s pioneering psychology work for more on that topic.) We also need to know our signals are being received. He tells me he needs less pressure, and I listen and learn from that. His “voice” is being heard, and that ultimately makes our relationship even stronger.
Learn more about Natural Lifemanship training and certification here.