Enough with the Bliss-Ninny Platitudes!

WMNubeDoorYour horse is escalating. His prance is coming apart into a full-blown Flamenco dance with a furious stomp to his hind hooves. It’s audible; you’re on pavement in front of an indoor arena. His front hooves alternately pop the ground and swim in the air, as he tosses his head, jerking side to side, with his poll so tight that his mane stands straight up, then down, then up–matching his changes in altitude.

For what it’s worth, he has been at this same show the last two years running and he was perfect. So you brace. No bliss-ninny platitudes about breathing and positive reinforcement; this is a disaster.

A crowd is starting to stare in the way that people can’t take their eyes off a train wreck. Your friend, who has had horses as long as you have, says through a clenched jaw, “Can’t you do something?” It’s not like you haven’t been trying, so you pantomime offering her the lead rope. She isn’t crazy enough to take it. Your horse’s snit continues and now it’s as if you were fishing for trout and hooked a Great White.

Like all good wrecks, time slows down. You’ve seen mothers whose kids are howling and kicking out a tantrum in a grocery store aisle that have your look on their face. Then your horse lands a bit closer to you, and for an instant you get a look at his eye, or more notably, the white all around his eye. That’s when you get it–your horse is toddler-hysterical. Maybe he isn’t being disobedient, maybe he’s terrified. It’s a valuable perception but he’s flying on the end of the lead line like a kite in a ground blizzard. You’re probably really squinting by now; it’s gone on for ninety seconds.

Consider your options. You would like to whisper to him, but he’d never hear you above the roar in his ears. Should you go nuts and attack him with a whip and show him you’re alpha? Whack him in the face a few times; use that whip with the clever name. Back him up till he hits a wall and intimidate him in a quivering, terrified pile. Eventually, he shuts down in overwhelm and you win because you watch horsemanship videos. (Grocery store moms learn this fast–picking a fight with a hysterical toddler is never a good idea.)

Option two: Pretend you’ve never seen this horse before in your life. You could shrivel up from embarrassment, let go of the rope, and make a run for your truck in the lot before anyone recognizes you. After all, the horse is nuts and truth be told, you’re scared, too. Don’t try this. Some do-gooder always takes down the license plate number.

Option three: You’re a Dressage Queen. And you’ve read the fine print, past the competition rules, and you understand the actual intent and beauty of dressage; the lesson masters have taught for centuries. In dressage we believe that forward is the answer. We know that the best way to get a horse’s attention is by asking for transitions. And it’s time to help your horse.

Your horse seems unreachable. He can’t hear you breathe, yell, or anything else and is probably past any rational response. Breathe anyway. Do it for you.

He really needs a reward for something but it has to be a truthful exchange, so find a tiny thing to ask for. Here’s the tricky part–you need to distract him from his fit for an instant. There’s no telling what will work, so be cautious and creative and ad lib; you might shake the rope differently, or maybe bark a sound, or stomp your own foot, but give him a small startle so that you break the chaos of his fear and catch his eye.

That’s the instant to slack your energy and say Good Boy! You just reminded him you can help. You might need to repeat it, but go lighter and not louder. He doesn’t enjoy fear. He’s begging for solace, so give him a path to peace and reward. If you can, ask him to walk on. Whether it’s a tiny step or a huge jump, keep breathing and let him cover ground. Moving forward is where he’ll find his breath, too. (You’re staying alert, right?)

Now for the transitions-to-attention part. A transition is much more than a change of gait; it’s anything your horse isn’t doing now. If you managed to get him walking, ask for a turn, and good boy. Then a few longer steps, good boy, now shorter steps, and good boy. Keep it simple. On the ground, or under saddle, if he’s slow or doesn’t give the perfect answer, no nit-picking. If you’re looking to return to your usual sweet conversation/work with your horse, you have to accept him where he’s at. Fighting his behavior when he’s stuck doesn’t give him a way out. Less correction, more direction. You have to go into his hole with him and lead him out. That’s why they call it leadership.

Then let the transition-cycle work: Cue to connect with him, let him answer, and then reward his response. Politely ask for a bit more, reward that connection again. Perfect or not, now he starts to feel better about things and he tries a bit more. Reward his bigger effort, continue the cycle, and before you know it, it’s all hearts and flowers again.

It’s genuine horse communication when he follows your feet—the real natural horsemanship blends with the old-fashioned dressage principles. Positive training works; it’s the difference between partnership and dominance; the difference between putting the horse first or having your own tantrum.

The irritating thing about bliss-ninny platitudes that sound inane in the middle of a wreck–is that they work anyway.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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43 thoughts on “Enough with the Bliss-Ninny Platitudes!

  1. Great point. They are bored. It’s icy and dangerous, and they are bored, and anxious, and …… I don’t blame them one bit.

    Enjoy your day!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. Oh wow….been in that predicament, on and off the beast. Didn’t always handle the situation the best way. Your solution is most helpful of course but letting the horse loose and running away was tempting. Now I can laugh, not so funny back then.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Not sure why it brought a tear to my eye, maybe I’m a sucker for a happy ending :). I have seen this work, not always easy to breathe when I’m as scared as the pony… work in progress. Thank you!

  4. Earlier this week my OTTB and I had a moment where his trust in me, and my understanding of him met full force. It was windy. I had brought him in two hours early the day before because of the weather. And there was a large piece of plastic caught in a corner near the fence, and it was going to attack him.
    I saw it. He saw it. And he panicked. I let him back up some and went with him. Then I gathered him back up and spoke to him. I jiggled the lead. I spoke to him calmly. I knew he was scared. And I knew if he escalated he was going to get hurt. Either on the ice that was surrounding the path to the field. Or by going into all out terror and running down the long drive and into the road. And I knew, that him getting hurt would hurt me more emotionally than he could ever hurt me physically.
    So I brought his attention back to me. Slowly. And kept touching him on his neck when I got a chance. He put more attention on me, but kept a wary eye on the attack plastic. By the time I got him those 3 more feet to the gate. He was no longer paying attention to the plastic. But to me.
    I got him in. Turned him loose. And then went and gathered the plastic up into my arms and brought it into the barn to the trash.

    What got me the most is that two other owners walked by it. One with two horses. Meaning he had to walk by it a total of 4 times. I saw his second horse spook at it. So it was an issue for him as well. But no one thought to remove it. Myself. I don’t like it when my horse is terrified. It could hurt him, another horse, myself or an innocent person.

    1. Good job of working with your horse…an opportunity you wouldn’t have had if the plastic wasn’t there. Am I a devil’s advocate or what? Not everyone spooks, and as for me, because I can’t control the plastic universe, I’ll opt for the kind of conversation you and your horse had. Great comment, either way. Thank you.

  5. “More direction, less correction”….I love this. It is huge. Makes me want to go out and look for challenging moments so I can work on myself. Even without the monsters in the corner it is a perfect mantra towards a better relationship.

  6. Well written, Anna! I could feel that pit in my stomach as I read it. In addition, I calm myself so I don’t hit the adrenaline surge and stop thinking. Most boring image I can conjure, while practicing your technique.

  7. This was just what I needed to read as my horse loses his mind in the indoor by himself and checks out…
    Thank you!

    1. Oh see, that makes me nostalgic for the snow coming off the roof of the indoor when my Grandfather Horse was a pip-squeak. Thanks, Missy, for the reminder!

    1. Yes, and again, that’s leadership. I think I’ll be working on that self improvement part for another decade or two, if I’m lucky. Thank You. Good comment.

  8. My trainer is teaching me to go forward when Tessie bolts or spooks. And has coached me through in similar ways-breathe, loosen up on the reins, pat her, let her calm down. It’s not as scary as it once was because I’m staying with her. My trainer says she doesn’t think Tessie would hurt me…My trainer put her on the lunge line and saw how she is unbalanced at the canter. I know their connection to their feet is all important. If they don’t have a good connection, things can fall apart. I just changed saddles and wonder about that, even though this one is a better fit. At any rate I’ve shut things down for the winter. Thank you for your wise words on how to handle this.

  9. I get it! I have a sweet mountain mare who is a bit scatter brained. When we were first getting to know each other she refused to go through a gate and down a hill. It was get close to the gate and back up at speed and it was escalating. A light went on in my head and I took a huge breath and relaxed into the saddle and dropped my hands to the pommel and directed her to a nearby giant rock. I asked her nicely to go round and round that rock which she did. I asked her to go through the gate and down the hill, she refused. Back to the rock, round and round and round ad nauseum. The whole while I sat quiet and relaxed and eventually her light went on and she said ‘hey, I bet it’d be a whole lot easier just to go through the dumb gate and down the hill’, and she did! While we were both sweaty and quivery-legged (going around in small circles is HARD), we were both calm.

  10. I overfaced my horse yesterday, in a moment of enthusiasm and dumbness, and he fell apart and suggested, with a skittering of hooves on pavement and a few spins, that he was about to bolt for home. His hard pace can hit 30 mph and we were sporting a bitless bridle of unknown stopping/steering power. I sat deep, managed a breath or two, talked to him calmly, and then slid off. We checked out The Scary Things and took a calming stroll. Eventually, I remounted and we walked home. I am so, so relieved that I responded in a way that made his life better, and not worse. 20 years ago, I would’ve seen that situation as a challenge. Yesterday, I saw a scared horse who needed my brain, not my brawn. There are still too many trainers out there that would’ve supported a rodeo-type response to his fear. Thanks for you work, Anna. It always resonates.

    1. Thanks, you know this is my favorite thing; that situation where we manage to do better than we used to, and then everybody wins. Wonderful, thanks for sharing. Your horse says thank you, too.

  11. Anna, I do want a copy of your new book, signed if possible so tell me how to order from you. thanks, daisy

  12. Very “à propos” as usual; still recovering from a broken ankle, I have to hand walk a 21/2 month stall bound pony after he elongated a branch of his suspensory ligament. It brings self control to an all different level….

  13. I learned the same solution to working with a horse in that state, but described in “Bill Dorrance”
    terms. When the horse is feeling a lot of emotion, he needs to express it in his feet, so the best thing to do is have a plan for how to move his feet. And if he’s fearful, you need to help his confidence by asking him to do something super simple (like just giving his attention, the way you did) so you can reward him for his try. Thanks for another excellent post.

  14. LOVE this one, beautifully written

    Sue

    On Sat, Jan 16, 2016 at 1:05 AM, Horses |AnnaBlakeBlog | Equestrian wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: “Your horse is escalating. His prance is coming apart > into a full-blown Flamenco dance with a furious stomp to his hind hooves. > It’s audible; you’re on pavement in front of an indoor arena. His front > hooves alternately pop the ground and swim in the air, a” >

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