I have had the privilege of doing a couple teaching sessions with Barb Kiiper's project mustang, Rally. Rally is typical of most mustangs, she is desperate to learn about humans quickly because she views interactions with them as a matter of life and death. In her experimentation with how to handle her new relationship with humans she has naturally exhibited some behaviours that are undesirable, or down-right dangerous for humans to be near. She has also displayed a level of softness and willing partnership that is rare among horses raised by humans. The key to having her, or any horse, reflect the best of a horse/human relationship comes down to pressure and release.
In our first lesson together Rally was having serious difficulty allowing herself to be touched. Barb had done commendable job teaching her to stay connected with people by consistently turning and facing a human in her pen, as well as teaching her to approach within arms reach, and she would readily sniff an outstretched hand, but there the progress was stalling a little. Rally would run off, sometimes explosively, when touched. To begin with, when Rally would panic away from my touch I would do what felt like the right thing to do, I would back off and try to give her the time and space to collect her emotions so she would be thinking clearly when I asked to touch her again. Soon, I began to notice that she was growing more reactive instead of getting calmer. This indicated to me that she was seeing my backing off as a reward for her panic attack. I changed my strategy and intensified pressure on her the moment she shied away from me, this did cause some real hysteria on Rally's part, because what she had perceived as the right answer was no longer working and she had no idea what to do next! As soon as she appeared to be looking to me for an answer to her predicament I took off all pressure. It wasn't long before she was attuned to my cues to know what actions on her part would keep the pressure off. At the end of that lesson she was anchoring the bridge of her nose into my hand and allowing her nose to be petted.
We had spent so much time teaching Rally not to run away and to come close to humans when she felt pressure that the concepts of backing away and lunging made no sense to her. She kept trying to crowd in to the human because that is where she had always found relief before. I had to be very firm to drive her out of my space to stay safe, so then, she had no idea where to go. Rearing is the normal reaction for a horse that feels that it cannot freely move in the direction it wants to go (in Rally's case that was right on top of me) and yet is being pressured to move, and rear Rally did! I persisted in driving her away from me and asking her to go forward because I knew that any relaxing of pressure at this point would teach her the habit of rearing. This would not make her a bad horse, it would make her a horse with a mistaken idea of what the proper response to pressure is. Being a rather smart little horse, Rally quickly gave up trying to rear as a possible answer, and learned to lunge that afternoon, but I realized her potential, like a mirror, to reflect any training she was given.
There are times that she tries being dull and sluggish, there are times she is explosive and reactive, but there are also times when she is light and responsive. If in her training she was repeatedly given release when she was being dull and sluggish it would not be long before she was labeled a "lazy, stubborn" horse. If she was given release consistently when she was being explosive she would get labeled "crazy". Believe me, Rally is neither lazy nor crazy! She is just an magnificent example of a horse's ability echo what we show them is the surest way to get pressure released. Because Rally has routinely been given release at the times when she is soft and responsive she is evolving into a willing and gentle partner.
If you find your horse exhibiting a less-than-desirable habit, it may be time to take a close look at when you are relaxing pressure, or perhaps unknowingly creating pressure. Remember, the horse is your mirror and will dramatically reflect when you are making him feel uncomfortable, or when you are helping him feel soothed.