What is your Pressure Tolerance? Part 1

Physical Pressure Tolerance

When I work with new horses, I often do a simple exercise where I apply my finger with very slight pressure on the horse's body to see if and how quickly the horse will yield to slight pressure. If the horse yields immediately, I quickly release the pressure. If the horse does not yield, I apply a little more pressure until the horse yields to the pressure. This exercise gives me an idea as to what the horse's reaction will be to physical pressure on his body. It has been said a horse with a high level of tolerance for pressure (or has a strong oppositional reflex who will actually push against physical pressure) will yield slower than a horse that is sensitive and has a low level of tolerance to pressure.

Every horse is different, like every human is different. Some horses are super sensitive, and actually react "too much or too quickly" to physical stimulus -- this is judged by us humans of course, and often in terms of riding horses, which are supposed to yield to light and gentle physical pressure, but not ignore it, push against it or jump away from it in response. While physical pressure and the horse's tolerance or intolerance to it is often the focus in horsemanship, as a Counselor/Life Coach providing Equine Facilitated Therapy sessions I focus on the psychological side of mental and emotional pressure as well - for both human and horse.

Mental and Emotional Pressure Tolerance

OpenHouse3So today I want to talk about mental and emotional pressure tolerance or "thresholds". The horses are amazing in that they communicate non-verbally with us exhibiting body language. For example, when approaching a horse grazing out on the field, with every step you take toward the horse, she will already exhibit physical signs of mental or emotional pressure being felt by her. I learned through my years of working with Autistic children that they too exhibit these physical responses with energy shifts to any mental or emotional pressure. Linda Kohanov (author of "Tao of Equus" and "Way of the Horse") also writes about these thresholds and her term for these are called "Energetic Boundaries".

Horses respond to us quietly while we "predators" are often too busy, in a hurry, with an agenda and generally distracted by other things as we barge into their space. It's not uncommon if we humans don't notice the horse's very subtle body signs. Undetected by the oblivious human the horse communicates with a subtle blink of an eye, slight turn of an ear, while continuing to graze as if nothing is going on. Ignore these little signals and continue your approach, the horse now raises his head, looks away, swishes his tail, shifts his weight. Continue to approach and if further ignored, the horse that is uncomfortable with this type of experience is now turning around, walking, or running away. If you have your own horse, try it out sometime. You'll be amazed how subtly the horse's energy shifts and their bodies respond. If you sense or see these little shifts, stop, back up a few steps and wait before you continue to approach. Watch your breathing!

Becoming more Aware and Receiving the Signs

Mustang5I recently helped my friend Poppy with training her horses. Both horses, two lovely Spanish Mustangs exhibited a strong mental/emotional intolerance to being led away from their comfort zone, their paddock. They would get physically agitated as the distance from their paddock increased. The signs were pretty clear once they were 20 to 30 feet away from their comfort zone; quickened steps, head tossing, tail swishing, pawing the ground, and the further away the horses got led the more the physical symptoms would escalate.

So instead of "pushing the horse through their discomfort" I asked my friend to constantly pay attention to the horse's mental and emotional pressure thresholds as she was leading. This takes a lot of mental and emotional focus! I asked her when she could "sense and feel as well as see" when the horse was still relaxed (low head, soft eye, slow steps, relaxed body, slow breathing, etc) and then to notice the slightest signs of the horse's pressure threshold being overstepped before it escalated (head slightly raised, worried eyes, slightly quicker step, a little faster breathing, tension starting). And when she did notice any of these slight signs, I instructed Poppy to immediately breathe deeply herself and stop going any further. Basically, to show the horse and herself that she was present, recognized and respected the horse's thresholds and released the pressure immediately and consistently. Interestingly I found out that my friend also felt anxiety (mental and emotional pressure) as her horse got agitated. As Poppy became more aware of her own and her horse's connection, she began noticing when they both were pushing beyond their own psychological comfort threshold.


What is a "threshold"? In psychological terms, an absolute threshold is the lowest detectable level of a stimulus. The stimulus can be a sound, sight, or smell. In terms of energy I would add physical and mental pressure. The stimulus if perceived negatively can create emotional responses such as stress, anxiety, fear, etc. The stimulus can also cause a mental or emotional shut down (often experienced by people or animals with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where the stimulus is a trigger). It all depends on the person or animal's tolerance levels, conditioned responses, and so on. Every person and animal is different due to their past and present experience, toleration and thresholds.

Cool-traffic-lightIn easy terms, think of yourself perceiving simple layers or signals. Like a traffic light gives off three signals: green, yellow, red. Green means "relaxed, calm, happy", Yellow means "slightly agitated, a little stressed, not as happy", Red means "very agitated, stressed, unhappy, losing control". First you have to know what green looks and feels like (in yourself and the horse) then you must learn the various layers of Yellow that lead up to the Red. Most likely, neither you nor your horse will go from Green straight to Red without a signal of Yellow in between. It's by noticing the Yellow that you can prevent a full on RED REACTION that can send you feeling out of control (and same goes for the horse). Noticing Yellow and not allowing an escalation to Red, then going back to Green to release the pressure for a while can do wonders for increasing the tolerance for what used to give you Yellow signals pretty quickly.

Putting it into Practice

Mustang3As for my friend Poppy whom I helped train her horse and retrain herself, once she became aware of these thresholds, signals, and layers, she was able to keep her horse and herself more relaxed. Instead of walking further away from the paddock, escalating anxiety to scary "Red levels", she would now notice more subtle "Yellow" signals in the horse and herself, thus be able to take control of the situation. She would do this by turning and leading the horse back a few steps, pausing, breathing, walk in a small circle rather than a straight line. In essence she was regrouping towards the "Green", more relaxed feeling, and then try leading forward again. The result was amazing to watch: She became more confident and her horse became more confident. With some practice and in a short time she was able to lead her formerly agitated horse away from the paddock completely relaxed, feeling, sensing and seeing "Green signals".

What followed was a releasing on many other levels: the horse began yawning, sneezing, pooping, urinating, stretching, shaking it off. Even my friend was now yawning and stretching, and smiling. Her posture changed as well. Together, now many feet away from the paddock and still feeling safe and relaxed they had overcome a huge hurdle together!

And in my friend's own words, here is how she feels my technique of "Thresholds" has worked for her. Poppy states: "When I first started working with my two horses (both were new to me) I was afraid. They were pushy and high headed. This created high anxiety within me and in the horses. I felt I had no control over either of us. When Karin worked with us, within a few sessions, both myself and my horses relaxed and became more confident. She showed me how to read the signs and act in a calm manner to avoid escalation in energy. Now I feel more confidant and aware and my horses do to! It has made our lives so much easier and we are all happy too!"

In Conclusion

I hope this article helps shed light on how you can deal with your own (or others') pressure tolerance mentally and emotionally, how to recognize thresholds, be aware and work with the signs to find a Green Light, and ultimately find release and relaxation. You will become a better, more in tune leader and your connection with yourself (and horses) will increase manifold!

Next Article

This is Part 1 of a series of articles. In Part 2 I will talk about "Time and Location of Pressure Tolerance" in terms of human and horse thresholds. This next article will talk about horses who have been labeled "herd bound or barn sour" and "humans who push themselves too hard, or don't recognize their own or other's comfort zones or boundaries". I will talk more about healing with horses, and healing trauma.

Go to read What is your Pressure Tolerance Part 2 here.

If you would like to explore Your Journey further…

Questions, or interested in experiencing Equine Facilitated Coaching and Personal Development sessions in Kelowna? Please contact Karin Bauer, BSW, RSW by calling 250-860-1964 or karin@horsejourney.com

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  1. [...] and explain a few more points about Pressure Tolerance. If you have read my first article called What is your Pressure Tolerance Part 1, here is the next level of explanation, and this one is really very, very important! If you have [...]

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