Release: Giving Your Horse Dignity

WM Clara eye.heartDo you remember the very first time you heard the term Natural Horsemanship? I loved the sound of those words together. It felt holistic and honorable, and well, natural.

And there was a gap between what I thought those words should mean and what the work looked like in real life. The concept of pressure and release was supposed to be an improvement over traditional methods. Not some much; my favorite training quote from Xenophon in 430BC,

For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.

Instead there were frantic horses running in circles or horses so shut down that their eyes were dead. The human had an arsenal of signature halters, whips and ropes. Extreme tack designed to make up for our shortcomings. To be fair, we were all on a learning curve.

And that concept of de-sensitizing? Is that really what you want? It’s common knowledge that a horse’s senses are better than ours; his vision, hearing, smell are sharp and keen. Rather than contradict their instinct, wouldn’t we be smarter to listen to them, and then use their awareness, partnered with our intellect, to help them feel safe? Isn’t a confident horse the goal of leadership?

For some of us, the reality of natural horsemanship didn’t reach our ideal hope, and that’s okay. Despite the claims on the video packaging, training horses has never been a one-size-fits-all task. Rather than being mad about the terminology, or getting defensive about your precious bit of knowledge, or maybe worst of all, giving a horse-video personality rock star status, it’s better to understand that the awareness needed to train a horse is something we can only learn a small step at a time.

Learning to read is a great analogy. In the beginning we’re laboriously sounding out words and barely breathing. The dull story of Dick and Jane drags along until we eventually get to the page that says The End. Being able to make sense out of letters and punctuation is a huge accomplishment but it’s just the beginning; a ticket to enter the world of literature and history.

It isn’t that we move the end-line; it’s more like the definition of words grow with our perception. In training, it’s common sense that if we keep doing the same thing, we’ll continue to get the same results. For a horse to improve, we have to improve ourselves–maybe up our vocabulary and comprehension level.

And finally, I get to my point:  I’ve written a couple of recent posts about carrots and stated my favorite reward is release. I got asked a simple question, “What is release?” The answer changes…

When beginning with horses, humans have a habit of over-stating the obvious. We conveniently forget that horses are half the conversation. Instead we lecture: We ask a horse to walk and then keep giving cues as if the horse is deaf. We nag, we reiterate, we clarify, and we blather on without punctuation–blahblahblah.

So in the very first release might be the moment when you stop hitting your horse in the face with a bag on a stick. During a bad ride, halting to complain to another rider is a release for a horse. It hurts to admit it, but dismounting is a huge reward, especially when our communication methods aren’t clear or fair. It’s a depressing fact that in the beginning, horses like us when we finally shut up. It’s even more depressing to think of the number of riders who think this is as good as it gets. It’s like learning to read but never using it for more than reading traffic signs.

Then one day, we stumble upon a few inspiring words. Meaning we notice that our horse has offered a moment of grace. He’s managed to be heard over our barrage of cues and we’re dumbstruck. We slack our chatter to try to comprehend what just happened, and it’s a release. Perhaps accidental, but still, there’s a pause in the pressure we exert and that instant is a release for both of you. If you admit it, you’re curious about what will happen next.

It’s a plot twist: the story gets more interesting when there are other characters besides yourself. So you let the story unravel slowly, and there’s a moment when you listen to your horse without correction and he tells you something you didn’t know. The narrative becomes a dialog. If you give him a chance, you find out your horse has a sense of humor. Laughing together is a release.

As the sweet moment settles, it’s obvious that you’ll never be able to force his obedience. And you also admit that when you look into your horse’s eye, you can’t deny the intelligence there. He deserves more respect from you; more dignity for his attempt to translate your cues, even if he doesn’t think you are much of a communicator. That’s him giving you a release.

Eventually you might look at that old video or see an ignorant rider kicking and jerking his horse, and it will look like a silly comic book hero fighting a made-up monster. There’s a sadness for the horse that’s hard to let go of because you remember you had a start not so different. That’s when the scope of the plot becomes clear. It’s the epic story of revolution and freedom, told with respect and dignity. Understanding blossoms into compassion and there’s a genuine release that feels pretty close to enlightenment.

Release has taken on a dimension that you would have never understood in the beginning. It’s like discovering poetry; using fewer words to communicate an infinite ideal.

Because in the end, a relationship with a horse has nothing to do with a video or a carrot stick or special rope. What matters to a horse is release; that quality of peace in the stillness between breaths.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

63 thoughts on “Release: Giving Your Horse Dignity

  1. Dee Morris

    Loved this. I’ve just finished “Relaxed and Forward” and I’m going back in for round 2- the stuff I missed in my enthusiasm. Of course the downside is that it’s becoming harder to leave the field/sand arena and pretend to be a normal person. Oh, well I’ll just have to soldier on lol x

    1. Thank you, so glad you enjoyed the book… and normal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At least that’s what the donkey says… Thanks for commenting.

    1. I’m kind of backward… that last sentence was my first idea (after a whole life with horses). The hard part was writing the rest of the post so the last sentence would make sense!! Thanks for commenting, and I’m flattered!

  2. Melinda Codling

    This is a wonderful article. You nailed it. I’m reading this over and over as a reminder as to where I want to be with my horse, as well as myself.

    Keep up the good work.

    Happy trails, Melinda Codling

    On Fri, Apr 1, 2016 at 6:36 AM, AnnaBlakeBlog: Relaxed & Forward wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: “Do you remember the very first time you heard the term > Natural Horsemanship? I loved the sound of those words together. It felt > holistic and honorable, and well, natural. And there was a gap between what > I thought those words should mean and what the wor” >

  3. Beautiful analogy. We are learning to read!
    A friend had a horse on trial, and asked if I would ride and give my impressions. New horse seemed to give the most weight to other horses opinions. My horse is confident and um…directive…so I ponied ‘Phil’ off mine for a few days, just walking. Let him ask my horse “Are we afraid of this?” My guy would flick an ear back to me, I’d say, “I’m not.”, He’d think, “Me either”, and pass on to Phil: “Nope. We’re good.” Hilarious, and sweet.

    First ride: Phil began radiating anxiety (at the walk). I got as quiet as possible. Phil ratcheted up to hear hysteria. Mystifying, as he was doing exactly what I asked. I felt safe and completely relaxed. Huh. I gave him the same direction (walk on please) again, and he relaxed a notch. It hit me: he was so used to being told every second what he should do, that he had no faith in his own experience, and certainly none in the rider, who was going to flood him soon with signals at which he’d have to guess the meaning. Poor Phil. He had rider PTSD. I’m not the best rider. At all. Listening, and making room for the horse to tell you stuff, go a long way…great post!

    1. Jane, I love this comment… usually horses have to remind us to be in the moment, but you have been well trained (by good horses) and now you get to return the favor. What a treat. “Are we all happy about this?” Yep. Thanks for sharing this!

      1. Anna is spot on. I’ve been lucky to be trained by some great horses. I’m amazed that (most) of these horses could care less that I’m an “adequate” rider, and are so willing to help me, if I am willing to take constructive criticism!

  4. Kathryn

    Love this, thank you! Would love to hang out at your farm learning to listen, but since I live in Chicago, for now I will buy your books.

    1. Thank you for that… buying the books helps me, too, of course. But if you ever get in my neighborhood, Edgar Rice Burro would like you to come scratch his ears.

  5. I remember a moment, during the brief broadcast of stadium jumping during the 2012 Summer Olympics, where they had a camera on one of the top US riders. The rider obviously was unaware the camera was on her in the warm up area. And was chucking and sawing at the horses mouth. This was a rider that many including myself looked up to. In that moment I stopped looking up to her. I didnt see the partnership between rider and horse. I saw a bully. Granted. I do not know what precipitated the moment. But I had been THAT rider when I was younger and less secure in myself and in my horse. Even with my more “hot” OTTB when I rode I never got “in his mouth” No matter what “he did”. Which is why he and I have the relationship we do.
    I see younger riders now, chucking and sawing. Kicking and whipping. When a horse refuses a jump or misses a cue. I see a sullen and miserable horse going out and coming in from a ride. And it bothers me. They don’t respect, never mind listen to the animal. Who is trying their best to do what the rider wants. I hope that some day these riders have that moment. That breath. That peace. And develop the relationship with their partner that they will never forget. And will strive for with every horse and animal they handle in their future

    1. I so agree, Martha. I might have more patience with horses than people. I see things that burn my eyes, by pros and amateurs… and still know that I evolved past those behaviors…so there’s hope for all of us! Thank you, wonderful comment.

  6. Sabina Cox

    “Release has taken on a dimension that you would have never understood in the beginning. It’s like discovering poetry; using fewer words to communicate an infinite ideal.”

    I am breathing this in like a koan. It is just awesome.

    When horses came to me out of the blue (my background is meditation – not horses) 5 years ago…an infinite ideal was the reason I surrendered to the yes of loving and learning from a herd of 4.

    And so I still discover this infinite ideal…as I try to learn how to be a poet of no words.

    Thank you Anna.

  7. Dear Anna, as a writer and journalist and photographer (yep, all those too!), and also a trainer still of horses, I 100% agree with every sentence you’ve written. A couple of outstanding horseman who were really horses in disguise (!) taught me real horse language beginning in 2003, where the human has to learn to move and learn horse-think – it took me three years before I could do (mostly!) the movements but wow, it means you can work with any horse and in fact, the highly disturbed horses that come in for re-starting look at you and say, oh thank you! you speak Horse – we don’t have to work out what Humans are saying anymore – because, of course, each Human works in a different way (and these are ‘dumb’ animals??!). There’s one movement in the ‘natural’ world that so programs their horses, though, that getting those horses to interact is the very devil – they’ve taken their minds somewhere else and all they can do, in desperation, is try to work out what your cues are – hugely disturbing to me, that deal. This piece of yours today so sings for everything in me that I believe in about horsemanship, right from my classical training days from bitey crusty old cavalry officers of fierce vintage in Europe and who in retrospect so blessed the way I’ve tried to honour the four-leggeds since then…..fabulous writing, thank you.

  8. “What is release?” Reminds me a lot of the ancient, biblical question: “What is truth?” Perhaps they are one and the same, mysterious only until every cell in your body and soul whispers: THIS.

    Wonderful post, thank you.

    P.S. My horse makes me laugh so much I’m pretty sure I’m permanently labeled the nutty rider in Ring 1. 🙂

  9. I always LOVE you posts! Release is a beautiful word. I would define the ultimate release, as stillness of the mind. The old masters have so much to teach us. My favorite quote is;

    “You can never rely on a horse that is educated by fear! There will always be something that he fears more than you. But, when he trusts you, he will ask you what to do when he is afraid.” – Antoine de Pluvinel (1555-1620)

    To some degree I believe that desensitization, by a qualified person, (that knows what they are doing,) helps a fearful horse. Better safe than sorry, when it comes to introducing things that have the potential to be scary. My mustang was very brave when introduced to new things, except when it came to metal. He was deadly terrified of anything made out of metal. Since different kinds of metal is so common in our world, I saw it as my responsibility to help him overcome his fear, by desensitizing him, in a kind and gentle way. I believe in taking the time it takes to do it right the first time. For both horse, and rider. I believe he was my teacher, more than I was his. It took 6 months to become friends. It was worth the wait, and the time. A brave horse, with its soul still alive, is always worth the time it takes.

    Love your posts!

  10. Patricia

    Thank you for putting my horse heart into words! I believe we all seek that “quality of peace in the stillness between breaths”. To be able to share it with others brings a quiet joy!

  11. bookendsfarm

    The problem with a release is it requires pressure first in order to have something to release from. Sorry, feeling cranky today.

    1. Not at all. You’re right. But sometimes I wonder if it’s possible for them to be totally pressure-free, even in the wild. There is an argument that walking into their pen is a sort of pressure, even when their response is to come toward us. Working with rescue horses gets more interesting from there. Thanks, pressure/release pondering always welcome.

      1. bookendsfarm

        Thank you for tolerating my crankiness 😉 Your kind response helped change my mood.
        I agree it is impossible for them to be pressure free, especially in the wild. And I agree the word “pressure” is a slippery slope. I have a lot of “contact” or “tactile” cues that some would consider pressure but my horses and I don’t consider them to be unpleasant pressure any more than a hug is unpleasant pressure…as long as the hugger and hugged are both willing participants.
        I work a fair bit with working herding dogs where we talk about pressure as something that sometimes draws a sheep or cow to something such as a barn or the rest of the herd/flock so I hear you there and agree 150%: pressure can be something you are drawn to. Pressure can be a dirty word these days. I guess the NH word brought up the unpleasant aspect of pressure for me when I am often defending tactile or contact cues as not unpleasant pressure.
        But I think when we train with the intent that we are going to apply pressure something such that the animal perceives the release of it as relief, then well, I’d rather not go that route.
        Working with rescue animals does indeed get interesting as we don’t know what their history with pressure has been. So it’s very difficult to use any pressure with them and assume that a history of escalating pressure isn’t what they are responding to, as opposed to our attempts at light pressure.
        I do love your writing. Thank you for sharing it, opening the conversation and being a good listener.

      2. So very well stated. I love this conversation. A hug is a great analogy, especially for an introvert like me. And for what it’s worth, the NH connection always rankles me a bit. Thank you for hanging in and adding to much to the content. I appreciate it.

  12. Lyn Chambers

    Another beautifully written article. Just wonderful!! I also love to read everyone’s comments. One thing that just hit me………………….shouldn’t ‘desensitizing’ (when done correctly) simply be called ‘building trust’ instead?

  13. neverlanavigator

    This goes along with the same ideas that I’m trying to learn; and it came just a few hours after I watched The Path of the Horse.

  14. sherryw2015

    I’m amazed at how you seem to put what I feel into words when I have such a difficult time articulating those feelings! I have to say I welcomed the NH methods if only to get rid of the old Dave Jones’ (remember him?) theory of ‘throw ’em and show ’em who’s boss” method. A good friend bought one of the ‘horse whisperers’ methodology hook line and sinker. I have been nudging her into realizing nothing is one size fits all. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Temple Grandin and her writings, not in terms of horse training/relationships but in terms of simply watching animals and learning what makes them what they are. I’ve found I’ve come up with ideas for reaching my animals from just learning their personalities. And boy howdy! they aren’t all alike at all – amazing huh?

    1. You can kinda see how cults come to be… and I agree. I probably learned more about myself than animals from Grandin, something I will always be grateful for. Jane Goodall did the same sort of thing in a different way, and that’s the big thing. We need to become watchers and not do-ers. Great comment, thanks, Sherry.

  15. Brenda Jacobson

    This so very well captures all I hope to have learned riding and all my natural horsemanship trainers have instilled in me. Eloquent and excellent. I will read this again and again for its beauty and simplicity. Thank you.

  16. Leslie Robinson

    Wow, what a profound piece! I am retraining a very sensitive young mule and we have found that ever so special place of peace! It has taken us almost 2 years, but what a feeling! Thank u for putting the feeling into words!

      1. Leslie Robinson

        I was reading the comments about pressure, release and desensitizing.
        When I first rescued my young mule he had so much worry that merely walking towards him in the pasture would cause him to run away. Now he is able to walk to me and in a way is giving himself a release because he finds my touch comforting. He seeks me out. I consistently offer him softness and he looks for that release.
        When I “desensitize” I feel that I am just telling him that a particular scary thing isn’t scary when he is with me. He is safe with me. Pretty cool stuff!!

  17. Thanks for the lovely read, Anna! I find it much more interesting to listen to my horses than to spend my time doing all of the “talking”. Admittedly, I sometimes hear things I’d prefer not to … but it makes the relationship all that much more interesting … and rewarding when we finally are both telling the same story together.

  18. Anja

    Loved your article. I’ve been preaching for years now that a horse can teach you so much more if you’re just willing to let go of control and let the horse guide and teach you on how to give the correct communication cue. It’s a back and forth conversation that only very few are able to have with their horses. A good example was a level 3 trained dressage mare. Personally she was one of a few horses that was much more educated than me. This mare was absolutely incredible. It took very subtle cues to have her do the fanciest dressage movement. A squeeze of your buttcheek and this mare would do flying changes every other stride etc. Now this mare was coming up for sale and someone that took dressage lessons from a, and I quote, “gold medal dressage rider” was interested and after riding her she got back to me slamming the mare down, saying she wasn’t even past training level 1… Why? Because she wouldn’t canter on the inside lead for her. Little did this woman know that this mare would respond exactly as asked. She canters on the correct lead just fine… She canters on both leads when asked to. I explained to this lady that she did exactly what was asked of her and that she would have responded correct if said lady was only able to listen… To let this mare teach her what the right cues were… Sadly this lady took offense to that. She thought I was attacking her skills. Couldn’t be that she was the one that wasn’t capable of giving this very advanced girl the correct cues. No way she was above that. Frankly she has such a great teacher so it couldn’t be her. It was a good example of someone thinking they can force control without giving the horse the chance to guide her. It’s very sad to me. But this is how easily a horse is misunderstood. A very talented and experienced horse. Thankfully we did find the perfect home for her. A younger girl fell in love with her and is now competing all over state. And she is winning everything. She listened to me when I told her that this mare will take her along for the ride if she’s been giving a chance. Perfect match up. And I love hearing updates every so often.

    Listen to your horses. Give them the chance to teach YOU how to give the right cues. Start out with subtle cues. Less is often more. Watch and listen to their reaction and then adjust your question

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