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Animal Behavior

Distinguishing Pressure From Pain

Personal Perspective: Wisdom can come from equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Key points

  • Horses are susceptible to environmental threats, and their responses can be instructive.
  • Horses respond differently to non-lethal pressures than to life-threatening sources of pain.
  • Understanding the difference leads us to move away from pressure and confront pain, as horses do.
nicolagiordano / Pixabay
Source: nicolagiordano / Pixabay

You may be familiar with comic Brian Regan's funny sketch about pressure and pain. He observes that doctors don't like to use the word "pain."

Doctors will tell you about ‘pressure.' If a doctor tells you you’re about to feel some pressure, buckle up…He could be swinging a two-by-four by your head and say, ‘In a moment you’re going to feel a bit of pressure.’”

Brian's sarcastic reply: "Hey, bring it on—I'm good under pressure."

But seriously, there is a difference between pressure and pain. And this is illustrated poignantly and powerfully in the world of equine-assisted psychotherapy.

When I served as clinical director for a residential treatment program for teenage girls who had been victims of trafficking, the program included weekly sessions of equine-assisted learning, employing the services of two rescued horses, Ranger and Minnie.

The sessions were facilitated by trainers from an organization called Trinity Reigns Ranch. They incorporated concepts they had learned from Greg Kersten, a pioneer of equine-assisted psychotherapy. I learned many things about horses as I observed, as well as many ways that equine behavior corresponds to human behavior.

Pressure and Pain

One of the most interesting and helpful concepts we learned related to the difference between pressure and pain, as experienced by horses.

Horses are prey animals, making them highly sensitive to environmental threats. Observing how horses respond to threats can teach us some things about responding to the kinds of threats we experience as humans.

Carol, our facilitator, gave examples of what a horse might experience as pressure. Pressure could be a small animal pestering it, a person making noise and waving her arms, or even a rider using physical pressure with her thigh on one side of the horse. These pressures will cause the horse to try to move in the opposite direction.

These stimuli register to the animal as non-lethal stimuli that he instinctively tries to escape. The most likely response is to turn and walk away. If he can't turn away, he may wait nervously for the irritant to go away. Pull back his ears, make some noise, or swish his tail to communicate his displeasure.

Pain is different. Pain for a horse comes from being threatened by a predator that can kill him—a grizzly, a mountain lion, or a pack of wolves.

If the horse were to turn and run, these predators would likely catch up and attack from behind. Since a horse primarily uses its front legs for defense, jumping up and overcoming predators with its formidable height, he must face his foe. He can't afford to run away and turn his back on the threat.

Apparently, after millennia of surviving and adapting to many environmental threats, horses have learned the distinction between pressure and pain, using it to determine when to run away and move toward the source of potential pain and overpower it.

Applying It to Our Pressure and Pain

For us, pressure might be an unhealthy or unfulfilling relationship, a peer group that exerts a bad moral influence, or a non-lethal habit that nevertheless impairs our quality of life. As you read this, perhaps another example of something annoying, obnoxious, or unhealthy but not immediately life-threatening comes to mind.

We are wise to recognize these pressures and move away from them, if possible, as horses do.

Pain is different. In the therapeutic context, pain might manifest in a deep depression that causes a person to want to give up and die. Pain is direct and collateral damage from years of unhealed childhood abuse, making it impossible to trust or feel safe fully. Pain comes in the aftermath of severe trauma when a survivor's psyche is shattered into a million pieces. These are potentially life-threatening levels of pain.

If we ignore it or run away, pain pursues us until we deal with it. It will find us, and if we don't take on the fight, it might eat us alive. Unresolved pain will manifest in anger, anxiety, depression, aggression, self-injury, suicidal impulses, or crippling addictions.

Pain is a severe symptom, telling us we need care. In many disease processes, pain is the primary alarm signal that something is wrong with the body or mind.

It may take considerable time, effort, courage, and support, but we must eventually approach the cause of pain, acknowledge its reality, and find a way to the other side of the threat. Avoidance will only distort our thinking and emotions, potentially leading to even greater damage and pain.

It has been my sad observation that people who exert energy to avoid pain can reach a point where they can't feel anything. They manage to avoid feeling acute pain, but they become numb to feelings of joy, excitement, sorrow, or normal grief.

We are a lot like horses in some ways. We can feel like prey. We can experience both pressure and pain daily. It is important to understand the difference and to respond accordingly.

Thank you to those who understand horses and humans well enough to provide these valuable therapeutic metaphors.


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