There is pressure to get enough to eat so you aren't hungry later. The feeling of a hand on your shoulder is a form of pressure. Needing to study for a test so you don't fail your class is pressure. Hearing a weird sound and wanting to know where it's coming from and if it a threat is a kind of pressure. Wanting to run the fastest in the race to win is pressure. Carrying a backpack or purse over your shoulder causes physical pressure. Pressure is everywhere, we can't escape it.
Other words we can use in the place of *pressure* include; strain, burden, weight, influence, stress, tension, adversity. Pressure isn't *bad* but it's also not always pleasant and it does provoke a response. We are always learning, always responding, always adapting. Always. We are learning how and when to eat to alleviate the hunger. What a hand means when it's placed on our shoulder. (Is it a good or bad thing?). Whether or not weird noises are dangerous, or which have good results and which have negative ones. How to carry a heavy backpack or purse in a way that doesn't cause pain. What are ways we can learn to run faster to win the medal?
We can't escape learning, we can't escape pressure, life is pressure. But not all pressure is R- (negative reinforcement / pressure & release). R- pressure is the kind of pressure that makes the learner want to seek relief. The heavy backpack digging into your left shoulder so you switch it to your right, eating to satiate an empty stomach, moving away from a hand on the shoulder because you don't like being touched, moving away from an irritating noise to find quiet again.... these are all instances of getting relief from an aversive pressure, and learning how to repeat getting that relief in the future should the situation arise again. So what are some forms of pressure that aren't R-?
Seeing you only have one more chapter of an amazing book you're reading, and even though it's late at night you push through to figure out what happens in the end! Getting up early in the morning to run a couple miles, even though you're tired, because you love how you feel afterwards. Training hard during practice so that you can win your next sports game. Clocking the hours studying for a test to earn that special trip to the mall your mom promised you if you got an A. Working hard to launch your new business, or to see a dream come to fruition. These are all examples of situations that involve pressure, but pressure that results in a positive outcome that you voluntarily signed up for. You didn't have to be there, you didn't have to sign up for the team or finish the last chapter of the book tonight, or get up early that morning.. you chose to do so. It was rewarding, and it was something you wanted to do. You could have chosen to do something else, in fact there are other things you find valuable or that you do with your time, but you decided these were the things you wanted to work towards.
Pressure is really anything that impacts us in some way or another. We can also be experiencing different degrees of pressure depending on the intensity being applied, or if multiple forms of pressure are happening simultaneously (think of trigger stacking or when we feel "overwhelmed" - even good pressure can cause overwhelm and distress). Sometimes this can make "positive pressures" seem not so positive, and turn them into something they weren't originally.
So yes, pressure exists in many different forms, and life is pressure. When we are discussing training our horses though, and when discussing R- vs R+, there IS a difference in the *kind* of pressure being used. It's all about how it impacts the horse, how they feel about the pressure, what does it make them want to do or not do? Does it make them want to seek relief (R-)? Or is it about earning something desirable or doing something that's self reinforcing (R+)? Do they have the option to find reinforcement elsewhere? Are we setting the bar too high? Or asking for too much at once? For me, personally, I'm all about minimizing the kind of pressure for my horses that causes them to find relief. I don't want them to feel a lot of pressure to perform or respond, especially not because they want to avoid something uncomfortable. I want them to want to engage, but to have other options available. I recognize that their life is full of enough negative kinds of pressure already, without also bringing it into the training, as is all of our lives really. I'd rather make their experiences with me, and our training times together, something enjoyable that they choose to participate in and enjoy, at least as much as I possibly can.
Adapted from my original instagram post on January 25th 2019 @thewillingequine