Do You Inspire Your Horse?

WM Eary2Do you inspire your horse? Does he volunteer more than you ask? Are you proud of who you are in his eyes?

And yes, this is a donkey. There is no better trainer for a human who wants to work with horses. Look him in the eye. You are out-matched in strength and wits. Don’t just lay your ego down. Lay it down, walk over it a few times, and then spit. If you feel confident that you’ve succeeded in defusing your ego, then repeat the process until you stop judging. Quantify nothing.

Next, commit to using all your senses. Put your brain on mute, and instead of intellectualizing, become aware of what you sense. Breathe in, as if the air is fluid and nourishing. Is a part of your body tense or painful? Send breath there and allow relaxation to melt your stress. Soften your eyes and let your peripheral vision inform you. Listen for small sounds. Be still and focus on the present. Sure, thoughts will flit through, but let them pass. Be. Here. Now.

Listen.

Does this meditative part feel tedious? It matters because our senses are pitiful when compared to horses. Their eyes, their noses, their hearing, their sense of touch, are each better than ours. And if that isn’t enough, their response time is significantly faster than ours.Β  So this is us; the only chance we have of being a worthy partner to a horse is to learn to pay attention to the physical world and communicate in that realm.

Now fast-forward through your slow preparations: you’ve given him time to volunteer to be caught. The grooming session was curry heaven and he’s warmed-up and feeling good in his skin. And finally ready to learn. The next part–what you are planning to train–actually doesn’t matter much. It could be on the ground or mounted. It could be working with a simple obstacle, fine-tuning your riding position for jumping, training a spin or a flying change of lead. Something as advanced as a piaffe or as introductory as teaching a weanling to pick up his feet.

To begin, cut the task into tiny, bite-sized pieces and pick a piece to start with. Let’s assume he has no idea at all what you are asking for, because it’s more fun. Then ask your horse to engage with that small part. If he only acts remotely interested, give him a huge reward/release. All of a sudden he’s wondering what he did for all this praise and it’s game on!

If you ask again, and get a good answer, another reward/release. If he responds differently (notice I didn’t say wrong?) then no correction. Just take a breath and ask again. Give him time to choose the right answer. Check your focus and let your energy be calm. If he slows down his effort too much, percolate your energy up a bit. If he is reactive, fussy, or trying too hard, then exhale and slow everything down. Trust that he’ll come back to you, because we have to offer the thing that we want to train.

It’s our nature to panic when a horse’s energy spikes, but flat-out refuse to take that cue. Exhale again, even slower. Most of all, keep your mental focus on your horse and ignore the task. Losing your connection with him is like a game of bait and switch; if your focus flicks away from your horse, there is no reason to expect his attention on you will be any better.

Now for the donkey information: they are wicked smart and you have to be agile if you want to keep up. Give your horse that respect and then, if you can reward him for thinking about doing the task, before the task is completed even, then you are rewarding him for effort, for listening. If you can see his eye, or feel a slight softening of his will through the saddle, in the second before he begins to do the task, give him a huge reward. Too many times we drill and drill, and the joy of learning becomes drudgery and repetition. In other words, horses can get donkey stubborn for being used like a tool without a thank you. When you think about it, it’s demeaning. So sometimes reward the try, and call it a day. The real win is that they want to do a thing for us. A positive release for his intention is enough. Chances are that he will do the entire task next time, faster than expected, and somehow like the right thing was his idea.

This part seems almost unfair: the difference between training a horse to resist or try harder is usually just a scant few seconds. When you think of it that way, it’s impersonal. It isn’t about blame. It’s the timing that’s off. Just as he’s preparing to do the task, we ask again louder, and the result is that his effort gets interrupted. In other words the conversation between you gets sticky. Things can come apart when the rhythm of the work is broken, so the first thing to repair is the fluid conversation between you and your horse. No task is more important than your horse. Focus again.

How you can tell it’s time to stop is that your horse is happy and you both want more. Now walk him on a long rein, and enjoy the moment. But that doesn’t mean stopping the conversation. Focus on this part with all the energy and attention that you did the original task, because it’s just as important. Engage your horse in conscious relaxation. It might be the most important thing to train anyway.

I want to be with the crazy, psychotic one with spurs, said no horse ever.Β 

I want to be with the slow-witted one checking her messages, said no horse ever.

Humans are so hopelessly human; so addicted to punishment, as if pointing out the problem is the hard part. It isn’t. But if you still feel that need to show him who’s boss–fine.Β  Dominate something that will benefit your horse; dominate your own emotions and breathing. Listen less critically and more with your senses, and then model the behavior that you want your horse to have. Leadership means kindly setting an example.

Earn the respect of your horse by putting him first each and every moment. From that centered place of awareness, good training flows effortlessly. Because we aren’t really training the horse at all.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

58 thoughts on “Do You Inspire Your Horse?

  1. Janet Manuel

    Your writing inspired me each and every time. It is wonderful to ‘listen’ to a horsewoman who’s philosophies so closely match my own. I am dance partner to a ‘wicked smart’ Andalusian mare who challenges and delights me daily!

  2. Marla Foreman

    This is such a great reminder of the journey I am on. My horses point out regularly how much I still need to improve. It is so often that my focus slips and immediately the horse does something that I did not expect or want.

  3. I love love love hearing (again) that “work” with horses should be gone into happily, mildly, and inquisitively. That horses need time to think, some more than others, before being judged that their thinking time is the response. I was gently criticized yesterday by a long time horsewoman. At the time, it made me doubt myself. So it’s lovely to hear you likely would have also rewarded.

    This wonderful, easygoing, sweet, connected horse was assigned to pony a 2 yo for 30 min walk therapy. When I went to pick the youngster up, ponier expressed extreme unhappiness. Ears, tail, muscle tension, surging when I moved to untie ponyee…I moved, asked for a halt, put my hand on him and said in my mind, “I hear you. I’m sorry you don’t like him. We still have to do this. Work with me.” Walked back, he expressed his displeasure again, with much less intensity, I untied the rope, and off we went.

    Oh he wanted me to know something all right. The baby’s mouth moved into my horses space, I jiggled hm back into his own bubble. Repeatedly. This baby had bitten him before! Everyone relaxed a tiny bit. I asked for a halt, patted my pony horse when his ears went soft. Patted the baby for halting when asked and standing still. End of ride…not all fixed, but a working truce was in place.

    The person watching saw this:
    1) I let pony horse get away with refusal and misbehavior. He should have been forced to comply instantly.
    2) horses get bit while ponying babies. He should have just sucked it up and endured his anxiety.
    3) the 2 yo should not have been rewarded for doing what was expected of him. That way they think it’s normal, not special, that they are obeying.

    There ARE points of truths in there. Probably why I doubted myself. But in my mind, he didn’t refuse. He said “I hate this.” And I had to wonder why. He told me, we worked on it, ending up with more trust all around. I have to think if there’s a time when I need to blindly insist he cooperate because I see a danger he doesn’t, that the built up trust will make him think, “She listens to me. Something’s wrong. I’m listening to her…” This isn’t holier than thou…I’ve been the rough, not listening, insistent person. While it got me obedience, I was always saddened by my bewildering lack of connection to a horse I loved so much…I have a lot of horse guilt. Use it to keep me on my listening toes now…

    1. Thank you… reading the first part of the comment, I’m nodding and thinking you are illustrating that concept of having a conversation. A negotiation between all parties, made just a bit more complicated by a second horse. Well done. I fear I am less kind about the comments from the rail bird, experienced as she may be. Her approach doesn’t leave much room for learning. What I end up understanding is that training is about collecting experiences and the sum total wins. Just more good days than bad…
      It should never be the order that a good horse is forces to suck it up. Your conversation with him gave him the chance to volunteer to suck it up. And there lies all the difference.

      Keep listening, to the horses especially. Questioning yourself is good, but don’t quite doubt yourself. You are changing the world for horses, especially this baby. He might have gotten the best lesson on partnership, from watching you and your good pony horse. Thank you for this comment; it defines what I tried to say so very well.

    2. deblinne1

      I’m so glad there are horse people like you in the world. I get frustrated when people are in a hurry at the expense of their horses. You showed tremendous patience and lack of ego. If we don’t have good relationships with our horses (especially our favorites), what’s the point?? Well done!!

  4. Lynell Abbott

    “This part seems almost unfair: the difference between training a horse to resist or try harder is usually just a scant few seconds. When you think of it that way, it’s impersonal. It isn’t about blame. It’s the timing that’s off. Just as he’s preparing to do the task, we ask again louder, and the result is that his effort gets interrupted.”
    This is so helpful, Timing truly is everything! Thanks, Anna.

  5. Lynell Abbott

    “I want to be with the crazy, psychotic one with spurs, said no horse ever.

    I want to be with the slow-witted one checking her messages, said no horse ever.”

    Might I attribute the above to you, Anna, in the horsey newsletter I edit? Thanks!

    1. Frances

      I love your ‘posts’ Anna, and I love hearing other people’s experiences, it doesn’t make me feel like I’m the ‘crazy’ woman who just loves being and breathing with my horse friend!! Too many people I know have this need to dominate and control and I often get criticised for taking too long and not showing them (the horse) who’s boss!! I now let it go over my head and ignore it and guess what, I have the best ‘relaxed and forward’ relationship with my bay friend. Thank you Anna (and all your followers!) x

      1. Thanks, Frances. I have to say, the comments are usually my favorite part. The readers here do have wonderful things to say, and in this world where horses are neglected, abused, and slaughtered, I do love this positive little corner. I was raised in that “show ’em who’s boss” mentality. Lots of us start that way, but there has been a kinder partnering way from the beginning too. Thanks, Frances. Keep up the good work; if nothing else, it aggravates the haters in the barn. πŸ™‚

  6. Brilliant! I had a mare who taught me the critical importance of slowing down, focusing, staying centered, and being in the moment. She also taught me to reward the smallest effort – especially to release and not hold on. All of that is coming in handy with another, highly emotional and sensitive mare, who was ruined by another trainer. A long journey of recovery is finally resulting in her focusing, watching, and waiting for the next cue … finally interactive and not reactive on her part!

    But I really laughed at the donkey part – I now have two geldings who are totally “wicked smart” (or “scary smart” as a former owner of one called it) – the rate at which they learn (good or bad) is beyond any horse I’ve encountered, and is certainly challenging the timing and refinement of my cues!

    Thanks for this critical message to all horse keepers/trainers/riders!

    1. Great comment; your horses think YOU are trainable. πŸ™‚ You said your mare was ruined by another trainer. I see that a lot with sensitive horses; they can come apart before submitting to a more dominant approach. But most of us horse people were taught that old school method at the beginning. To actually progress with training, we have to evolve past fighting. Most of all, for all your mare has taught you, she is the lucky one. Not all horses find people who listen. Love this comment!

      1. Today she humbled me by offering “leg yield” while at liberty! It is certainly a beautiful journey, if we’re willing to listen and take the time to understand! It helps to find kindred spirits along the way! πŸ™‚

  7. Andrea

    Loved this! So clear, ‘keep your focus on the horse, if you want them to do the same back’ & I liked the bit about stomping on your ego a few more times, so true! Well I liked all of it !! πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks, Andrea. And horses have been stomping on my ego for decades, now I think it’s faster to just do it myself!! πŸ™‚ Thanks for the kind words.

  8. Celeste

    I needed to read this again before I head out to the barn, taking my frustrations of the day and sharing them with the horse. That is not what he needs at all – me replaying my off day, so thank you for having this here for me to read again, to renew my commitment to put him first and not the negativity of the rest of the world to invade our space. Thank you.

    1. You are right, Celeste. It’s hard to make that mental separation and some days the negative leaks in. Your horse doesn’t deserve it, but for me, the barn is my safe haven; I don’t like having negative people there. Even if it’s me!! But then I remember how lucky I am to have a barn to go to… Thanks for writing.

  9. sherryw2015

    You made me laugh about the wicked smart donkeys. I have a mini and I swear when he thinks I’m going to fast or preoccupied he just stops and levels a steady gaze on me. He will refuse to budge until I totally stop and focus on him. Then he looks as if to ask ‘can you hear me now?’ and moves off as I wanted him to. I think of him when I’m with the horses, it truly helps me stop and focus and generally things improve..

    1. YES. It’s no joke. Donkeys require more finesse; they think for themselves. I always say if you want to get good with horses, let donkeys train you. “Can you hear me now?” is perfect. You are lucky to have such a patient teacher. (I’ll park right here until you settle your mind.) This comment cracks me up- thanks.

  10. deblinne1

    Oh. My. Gosh. I’m going to read this 45 times now, and then once again every time I get on on horse for this rest of my life. LOVE!!!

  11. deblinne1

    Oh. My. Gosh. I’m going to read this 45 times now, and every time I get on a horse for the rest of my life. LOVE!!!

      1. Thanks, but the first two years I blogged, there were so few comments that I thought I was talking to myself. You know, publicly. So I love hearing that the words landed somewhere!

  12. lisette mohith

    Thank you, it is lovely to see more and more people go back to the old classical ways. If the horse does not do it , you did not teach him right. If he did it before and now he does not what are YOU doing wrong or is he trying to tell you something. It is all about listening and having a non-verbal conversation with mutual respect. Only then will you have a relaxed horse who is happy to work with you and that you can trust.

  13. Kristin Otto

    Thank you for this. I just found your blog, this is the first post I’ve read, and I am floored by how you have so clearly articulated what I’m trying to do. I have 2 wicked smart blm donkeys, and they are the best teachers I’ve ever know. For us to communicate, they expect, no, demand that I am fully in my body, and they let me know, in no uncertain terms, when I stray. I’m new to equines, and they clearly show me when my body language and energy is asking something different then what I ‘think’ I’m asking. They will gaze at me with their sweet soulful eyes, as if to say, ‘get with the program, what are you REALLY trying to say here?’ Then I can stop and reconsider what it is I’m doing, and see my disconnect. When I can drop down and be fully aware, I can be part of the conversation (rather then a blablabla monologue), understanding and responding to what they are communicating back to me. It’s truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced.

    1. Donkeys. Yup. I’m fostering a 30- 40 year old Jenny right now and wow. I am amazed, for a multitude of reasons! I’m not going to worry about you, though. You do seem “trainable”. πŸ™‚

  14. Kate Schmidt-Hopper

    Recently had this experience! All amazed, including me, when I entered the equine communication with spit upon ego, tact, respect, and SLOW…BREATHING…..I surprised myself, most… Well said…

  15. Clare Elliott

    Fantastic article. I have a Connemara pony who has been trained using force and done far too much far too soon. When he came over from Ireland has was petrified of people. It has been a long recovery and now he is totally relaxed with me on the ground. He chooses to be with me in the field and we spend hours chilling out together. However, if he thinks I might want him to ‘work’ he is very reluctant and just plants his feet. I totally don’t inspire him despite my best efforts. When ridden he did everything at 100 miles per hour for fear of doing wrong. For the moment I am not riding him as he indicates that he is still worried about it. When on the ground he is the opposite- he doesn’t fear anything. He feels safe with me and looks to me for protection from scary things but he doesn’t really want to have fun with me. I try to make our time together fun but haven’t had a break through yet. His main fun is looking for things to forage on not walking with me. I try not to force him to do anything as I don’t want obedience, I want connection and co-operation. I guess persistence and time. I don’t think I am always good at interpreting his communications. IT is hard when everyone else around me works with force in some shape or form and all wonder why I am still not riding my ponies.

    1. First, don’t listen to “everyone else” and if you are stuck, try to find a positive trainer… anything I say here is just a guess because I can’t actually see your horse. Still, find tiny bite sized pieces. If he like grazing more than walking, no surprise. Grass is pretty sweet this time of year. Do you have an arena you can do groundwork in? Can you blur the line between work and hanging out by sometimes asking for little tasks like leading exercises. He came a long way to be here (I assume your in the US) and it’s a huge readjustment. Good luck and stay slow.

  16. This is the second time I read this. And may read it again. I’m buying a new saddle and put a crown piece on my bride to make my horse more comfortable. It seems like she is way more relaxed with a saddle that fits well. I have seen what happens when my mind wanders–she drops through the outside shoulder and we have a runaway at the walk. I have to focus on that reward you talk about. All the while I know she is teaching me important things about sinking into my body and focus. She’s a very good friend. The fun is back.

    I need to condition my horse and can’t always get to the park, so need to figure out ways to do that, that isn’t focusing on those blankety blank circles…If you have any suggestions. I’m thinking of sacrificing some hay and mowing the perimeter of my pasture so I can do walk and trot sets without circles..Thank you for this.

    1. Thanks, Katie. In dressage we believe we keep a horse’s attention by doing transitions… and if arena work is dull to you, it certainly is to your horse. Yes, you can mow, but I always think the art of riding is more creative than most think. I’d prescribe music and more transitions. Change bend and flexion, alter the length of stride within gaits and get playful. Be inspired by the transitions that are in tests, add more lateral work and build patterns or exercises that add spirals and half-halts and small extensions. Let responsiveness be the goal and work light and happy. If your brain is active so is your horse’s. (I think trot sets are boring compared to this, and the conditioning, as well as lightness, will be there in the middle of the game.) Good luck.

      1. Anna, thank you for these suggestions. I’m not bored with the circles, I believe T might be. She is most difficult with transitions. She will bow through the outside shoulder when I ask her to trot, and yesterday when I asked her to walk faster. I’m not sure what she’s telling me. I am trying out a new saddle and wonder if that’s an issue, though she doesn’t walk out of the barn when I bring it out like she did with the other two. I saddle her without tying her and she has stood there…Yesterday I don’t think she felt good…My trainer thinks the bowing out comes with a too active inside hand, which I’m working on. I’m also beginning to figure out that when I lose focus, she will do that, or when I think about being done, she heads back to the gate. The saddle fitter is coming today so I hope to ask her if the resistance to transitions is from the saddle.

        At any rate this is very helpful advice. I am finding the fun again. And even imagining good rides on my other mare, who drives, and seems to be asking me to ride her.

  17. Liza

    Thank you, I love your blogs and need to read this every time I go to my horse:
    “Earn the respect of your horse by putting him first each and every moment. From that centered place of awareness, good training flows effortlessly. Because we aren’t really training the horse at all.”
    Training myself to put her first really each and every moment and being in that moment, that’s the hardest thing… πŸ™‚

    1. It is hard; no argument there. Riding well is the art of negation and timing and partnership. Mares teach it particularly well! Thanks for commenting, welcome!

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