Connection Before Concepts: A Comparison of 3 Pressure-Release Methods

Or: Why Not All Pressure-Release is Created Equal


TL;DR – this article is about three differences in perspective around the use of pressure-release with horses, and makes suggestions about adaptations to the Humane Hierarchy based on attachment theory and the polyvagal theory.

  1. Releasing pressure when the horse does what you ask: classical negative reinforcement as used in natural horsemanship, horseback riding instruction, and other disciplines
  2. Releasing pressure when the horse shows signs of calm in the face of the feared stimulus: a version of pressure-release (operational counter-conditioning where the stimulus no longer acts as an aversive) used in CAT-H or the Constructional Approach Training for Horses
  3. Releasing pressure at the slightest sign that the horse expresses aversion or a “no” (pressure-release as used to give the horse with an experience of attunement so they “feel felt and get gotten” in the relationship, to provide relational and boundary repair BEFORE proceeding to using 1) and 2). This is an example of using pressure-release in a way that is NOT about behaviour shaping but about arranging the antecedents.


My awareness of a major discrepancy in the equine world happened well over ten years ago. I’ve hinted at it in various publications, and spoke to it outright during a HorseChats podcast I recorded recently (which will be coming soon). This is my first attempt at fully articulating it.

Part 1: What I Was First Taught

In a number of approaches in the equine-facilitated “whatever” field, a great deal of emphasis is placed on how one approaches a horse. This isn’t true of all approaches, of course, and there remain a large number horse-human interaction programs where the animals do not have much of a say or voice. However, in the ones where the horse’s needs are prioritized, I learned early on about the importance of releasing pressure at the first sign of a no.

This flies in the face of what most people are taught.

But from an attachment standpoint, this is crucial.

Attachment theory focuses on the importance of providing safe haven conditions in relationship, which are foundational to the development of trust. The primary way caregivers do this is through the accuracy and responsiveness of their attunement, in combination with their ability to provide co-regulation.

When we “are seen and heard, feel felt, and get gotten” by another individual (my paraphrase of Dr. Daniel Siegel, founder of interpersonal neurobiology – a field which has been adapted into interspecies neurobiology for those of us looking at the human-animal bond), our nervous system begins to settle and we begin to feel safe in relationship. When we feel safe, as the polyvagal theory suggests, many more things are possible: a deeper sense of intimacy and connection, the capacity for play and creativity, the attention and focus necessary for learning and other higher order brain functions, and the ability to rest and digest effectively. Our nervous system can do all these things because it is in a state of sustainable physiology that is conducive to experiencing those said things.

Coming back to releasing the pressure when the horse says no:

If a horse is refusing something, pinning its ears, not allowing someone to approach, and so on, I was taught that this might be a sign of either a relational or a boundary rupture, typically as a result of misattunement or mistreatment.

Horses experience these kinds of misattunements all the time, where we ignore their body language and attempts at telling us that they are in pain, uncomfortable, scared, and so on. We force them to do things they are not ready to do, often at great cost to them, for our benefit. It’s not always big things; most often it’s repeated misattunements that can create the biggest disconnects. In turning a blind eye to what the horse is communicating to us, we in turn communicate something powerful to them: that we don’t see or “get” them.

Do you trust someone or feel safe who doesn’t see or “get” you? Do you stay in relationship with people like that? If you do, are you resorting to appeasement patterns or shutting down in order to make that relationship work?

It’s no different for horses. They learn to tune out pretty quickly in response to not being “heard”.

And so, I was taught years ago to pause at the slightest hint of a horse’s attempt at communicating “no” – which looks like rock-stepping back a half step and waiting for things to settle before seeing what wants to happen next, both for the horse and for you. It’s not necessarily a full stop and backing off to a further distance, though at times it might look like that in the beginning (especially if we missed earlier signs of “no” or earlier “thresholds”). Rather, it is about being mindful of the other’s experience and responding to that.

Through training in Somatic Experiencing and a variety of attachment-focused therapies, I later understood the underlying reasons for the importance of this kind of titration from a neurobiological standpoint.

Give the horse an experience of consistent attunement FIRST to provide safe haven conditions and a nervous system state that is conducive to relationships.

THEN when there is safety in relationship, you can begin to make requests / asks or use “techniques”. 

But to make requests and use “techniques” before there is a neuroception of safety built in the relationship through consistent attunement and co-regulation is putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Sustainable physiology involving the social engagement system needs to be in place first, otherwise you will be fighting survival or conservation physiology with “techniques” that will be less effective or that result in behaviour that give the illusion that the horse is connected or willing when in fact it may simply be overriding.

Part 2: What I Was Told To Do Instead

After learning this foundation, I then began to study horsemanship and equine behaviour interventions.

I became confused.

I was told “don’t release the pressure before the horse has given you what you have asked for” (natural horsemanship, equitation/horseback riding, etc.).

I was also told “don’t release the pressure until the horse is showing signs of calm in the face of the thing that scares them (CAT-H).

When do you do what?

Then I learned about the Humane Hierarchy, and the importance of arranging antecedents (setting the conditions) FIRST before resorting to techniques (THAT started to fit more with what I had learned!).

The Humane Hierarchy *also* says that negative reinforcement (option 1) should be one of the last resorts (based on the LIMA principle of Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive).

This is often misinterpreted as “do not do negative reinforcement ever”. This is because people often turn to negative reinforcement (option 1) before addressing the antecedents (options 2 and 3), which can result in numerous problems, like a horse that is flooded out or “push button” who has learned what to do to avoid aversives but doesn’t feel safe in the relationship.

Option 1 (classical negative reinforcement) can be done with delicate attunement to thresholds in a connected relationship (in order to grow the window of tolerance). Which means it rarely should be the first resort. Certainly not the last, but not the first – safety in relationship and the associated optimal nervous system states come first.

Interestingly, those who solely ascribe to positive reinforcement often forget that +R can be done in a mechanistic way without attending to the relationship and can create anxiety and confusion.

That is, both +R and -R can be done well, or can be done poorly, which puts the order of a number of the steps beyond “arranging antecedents” in the Humane Hierarchy into question, in my opinion (with the exception of punishment going last, as it should). This is the limitation of stepwise models. It’s more of a widening spiral than a staircase.

But where did that leave options 2 and 3? Are all pressure-release methods negative reinforcement? No. According to Andrea Rosentrater Mills of Mills Horsemanship and Hoof Care,

  • “CAT, Constructional Aggression Treatment, was originally used for reactivity in dogs. When we adapted it for reactivity in horses as CAT-H, Constructional Approach Training for Horses, it seems that it began to be labeled under the umbrella of Negative Reinforcement, and has been resultingly eschewed in many circles, until just recently, where we have seen a renewed interest. More than likely, this label is a result of us confusing the pressure of a perceived aversive, present during Habituation and Counterconditioning, with an absolute aversive stimulus present during Negative Reinforcement and Positive Punishment. There are those, including myself when I first started, who have viewed CAT-H as a version of Negative Reinforcement, because we have focused on the observation of behavior being reinforced by the removal of a stimulus, instead of the emotionality that is happening with the Counterconditioning, and the fact that when that Counterconditioning occurs, the stimulus no longer functions as an aversive antecedent, meaning it can no longer fall under the umbrella of Negative Reinforcement” [Facebook post, March 18, 2020]

But I didn’t understand how this all fit together. It took me a long time to finally figure it out.

Part 3: The Discrepancy

What if pressure-release could at times be the least aversive way? That’s what I was taught in releasing the pressure and pausing at the first sign of “no” in order to renegotiate the relational dynamic and explore what it means to be safe with one another. That pause at the “no” and titrating or playing at the edge of the boundary in an active relational dance is an opportunity to explore the idea of being seen and heard, feeling felt, and getting gotten.

That would mean that option 3 would be an example of arranging the antecedents (setting the conditions to contribute to a sense of “safe haven” in relationship by offering relational repair through attunement).

Relationship (and other environmental conditions) first; behaviour shaping second.

Understanding when and how to use reinforcers with attunement in relationship and attention to thresholds is important. Knowing how and when to use the 3 options (among all the other options presented in learning theory) is fundamental. Timing and feel (which one could argue are “attunement”) are required no matter what kind of approach or technique you are using.

The LIMA principle and the Humane Hierarchy are a good starting place, but we need to adapt them based on attachment theory and the polyvagal theory (the “beyond behaviourism” I am referring to) in order to account for what I’ve written here.

There is a place for all 3 forms of pressure-release that I list above – provided they are done with an understanding of attachment and neurobiology.

I cannot state this enough: the 3rd option – the one I learned first – is the only one that is *not* about asking for a particular behaviour in the horse, in spite of its name. It’s about letting the horse know that it is in the presence of a human that is able to attune (and is therefore “safe”). It’s not about asking the horse to “do” or behave in a way that we desire in the same way that the other options intend.  That comes afterwards.

Allowing the horse to have a “no” first and exploring the edges of that “no” in an attuned and titrated fashion helps make it more likely to be willing to provide a “yes” later.

Option 3 is about setting the conditions for a different nervous system state to show up, which in turn supports more connection in relationship. Which *THEN* supports different things to occur. It is *not* about avoiding difficult things, but rather about ensuring the proper foundation is in place first before building the house. Connection before concepts. Attunement before asking. Partnership before procedures.

This means letting go of the ego’s need to show results in a particular time frame, letting go of inaccurate ideas about “letting the horse win if you give in to it”, and so on. Having a solid relationship built on trust and attunement is a win-win. If the goal is for you to win and the horse to lose, I’d encourage you to be curious about where you first learned that game. Quite often, it didn’t start with the horse.

Part 4: An Example

I remember an experience of a tuned out horse with a fair amount of neglect and loss. This horse would get overwhelmed quickly and shut down / dissociate (high tone dorsal vagal response). It was easy to mistaken that behaviour as “calm”.

After a week of doing option 3 (pausing and rock-stepping at the slightest sign of “no”, demonstrating attunement, doing the relational dance), something interesting happened.

The horse began to thaw out of shut down and warm up to social engagement.

By the end of that week, the horse began to turn towards and take steps towards people of its own volition. The horse began to show more curiosity towards the humans that were attuning to its subtle communication. This horse, who had also been quite shut down around other horses and was unable to integrate into the main herd, had been placed with some miniature horses instead. By the end of that week, the horse had started to show interest in the other horses and would allow them to hang out in closer proximity along the fence line.

Someone trained in CAT-H later worked with this same horse, who had not been privy to the work that had been done previously Within about a 45 minute span of releasing the pressure in response to the horse showing signs of calm in the face of being approached, the person was able to walk all the way up to the horse and pet it without it visibly tuning out. It was interesting to witness.

Part 5: Conclusions

I was left with the following thoughts:

Would CAT-H have been as “successful” had we not spent the previous week working through the horse’s freeze response through relational attunement? My sense is that we spent a week of arranging the antecedents and working on the neuroception of safety in relationship, which then allowed the CAT-H to be more effective.

Which was the bigger “success”? That the horse was willing to move in our direction of its own volition after a week? Or that the horse was willing to stand calmly without tuning out and allow a human to move towards it after 45 minutes? 

It depends on who you ask and what your timeframe is.

It also depends on what you define as “success”. Both are “wins” in their own way. A horse approaching willingly and a horse being willing to be approached both have value, though one may benefit the human more than the horse.

Option 2 is about looking for the horse to offer something inconsistent with fear and offering it a release when it does so. It is about operant counter-conditioning, which supports a different emotional state in the horse.

Option 3 is similar, but one step before option 2. It is about communicating attunement and helping the horse to experience a different nervous system state in the presence of others (there is no “ask” involved, unlike option 2). When the nervous system is in the right “state” as a result of “being heard, feeling felt and getting gotten”, the thing we were hoping to have happen (i.e., the horse being willing to connect) occurred without us having to reinforce the horse for the “right” response. It just showed up.

This is akin to the difference between ABA (Applied Behavioural Analysis) as used with children with autism (shaping pro-social behaviours through learning theory) and the new wave of autism treatments that are based on attachment theory and the polyvagal theory (setting the conditions for the nervous system’s capacity for social engagement to emerge), such as the Autism Reframe Technique, Emotional Resonance Theory, and the Safe and Sound Protocol.

A similar analogy can be found in working with trauma. There are those that believe Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be used with trauma, even though most trauma specialists know that CBT is limited in this regard. The current wave of trauma treatment in humans brings in attachment theory and a more nuanced understanding of the nervous system, such as what we see with Somatic Experiencing, for instance. It’s the difference between top down and bottom up processing. Address the bottom up issues first, and the top down interventions become easier later (or may not be required at all).

The same is true for the 3 methods of pressure-release.

There is a time and a place for all 3. But while all negative reinforcement involves pressure-release, not all pressure-release is comprised of negative reinforcement.

As you move forward in your explorations with horses, remember that option 3 is not a quick road.  It is the epitome of “take the time it takes, so it takes less time.” To me, the quality of the relationship is worth it. And the neuroscience agrees.