Bite Your Tongue.

wm-edgar-cheekIt’s an election year and I’m a politics geek. There, I said it. But the rhetoric is deafening. Sometimes there are just too many words. I’ll bite my tongue right there. Instead, let me think of something positive to say. Optimism is heavy lifting sometimes. Here goes:

Have you noticed that there are way fewer photos of abused and starved horses on Facebook lately? 

Pathetic attempt. In a separate and only somewhat unrelated story, I tied a client up last week.

Let me start at the very beginning. As a riding instructor, I’m always trying to encourage the horse and rider build a positive tendency in their work. It isn’t about being perfect; it’s about a peaceful process with good effort and positive rewards.

Unless it isn’t. When things spiral downward, and frustration or fear are on the rise, good intention is easy to forget. Some trainers might yell, “Don’t be so tense!” or worse, “Stop being scared.” Not helpful. Being told to not do something isn’t a cue a horse or rider can take. Really, it’s like name calling more than instructing.

Meanwhile, the fight goes on. There’s no bucking; it’s more of a grudge match. By now the rider is over-thinking and over-pulling and over-kicking. The horse is over-stimulated and can’t even remember how it started. Maybe, he finds a corner of a cue to try, but just as he is about to do it, the rider gives a bigger cue that feels like a correction, so he doesn’t do what he was just about to do… which was try. It seems like the uproar and noise in the saddle is un-answerable, so he gets the deer in the headlights look–tense poll, hollow back, furrowed brow. Identical to his rider.

Can we all take a collective breath and admit we’ve been there?

I developed this technique years ago, not that I recommend it. It’s what I do in a lesson, after I’ve suggested breathing and going slow and a few hundred other things. Then I try something creative. (Others might call it something absurd.)

Did I mention that particular client was ramrod straight, with heels pushed down and her hands did not move. Her position was perhaps too good, meaning a tendency toward stiffness. So, I suggest to her that she do an impression of me riding. I’m guessing that she’d say I ride a bit like a boneless chicken sometimes. Her eyebrows become a straight line across her forehead. She’s not amused. Yes, I encourage her, pretend to be me. My rider clearly thinks mimicking me is a stupid idea–so stupid that she makes a face. Now she’s more frustrated with me than her horse. See? There’s an improvement already.

But then she slides down deeper in the saddle and pouches her tiny belly out. I know she is doing it to poke me back a bit, but in the instant that her back releases, her horse blows and goes soft. She melts into his rhythm rather than trying to fight it. Sometimes drawing the attention away from the horse is all the help a rider needs, along with a self-deprecating giggle.

“The biggest enemy to the partnership of dressage is impatience and the human nature to dominate other creatures.”  –Walter Zettl

Be clear on this: It’s our instinct to pick a fight or throw a tantrum. It’s as natural as a filly spooking when a plastic bag careens across the arena. As natural as a Lab chasing a ball all day and then, all night. Riding well means training ourselves to go against instinct. Riding well requires that we put the horse first. Their language; not ours. Best to just lay down whatever shred of ego you have left now.

And the hardest thing to do in the saddle–is to do less. When things start to come apart we instinctually speed up and get louder with our cues. Feeling unheard, we really can’t shut up now; we repeat and nag and chatter. Our hands are busy and our feet bang away on the horses’ flanks. As if the harder we communicate, the more sense it will make.

In other words, we act like Facebook in an election year.

These days, I’m more confident when I use this kind of creative ploy to distract a rider from fighting. I might ask an obscure question or tell a story/example. Sounding ridiculous is fine; I’m just trying to buy the horse a moment of quiet.

So, there we were last week doing groundwork, trying to walk-back a trailer loading issue. I’m not saying my client was over-cuing, but I started to imagine those flashlights with the long red cones that they use at the airport. She’d worked up a head of steam and tied her shirt around her waist. I was nagging her about breathing as much as she was flinging her rope. Her sensitive horse was getting taller by the minute. Stop. Just stop. That was when I tied her up. I used her shirt to attach her elbows to her waist. I was going for a version of Temple Grandin’s squeeze chute. 

My client didn’t get mad; that’s a good sign. Instead, she decided to ridicule the idea. She tells me it won’t work, demonstrating by barely flailing her hands, to exaggerate how much she can’t move. Mid-rant, her horse does just exactly what she’d been screaming about. Then, she does even less, even slower, but with a smile.

She was dead certain he’d never do it. But that’s a release, too, isn’t it?

It’s natural to try to dominate. We’re loud, even if we’re passive-aggressive about it. It’s our instinct. But in our focus to see what our horse is doing; we forget that a horse’s awareness is much keener than ours. It isn’t that they can’t hear us; it’s the exact opposite. Time to hush the brain. When we whisper, they lean in to listen.

I just love it when a bad attitude teaches a good lesson. The other words for that are having a sense of humor. It might be the best cue we can give a horse. Or our friends.

So, with a smiley face emoticon, here’s my advice, less is always more…  Shut up and ride.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

45 thoughts on “Bite Your Tongue.

  1. Excellent article – you hooked me in. Less is more in many arenas – teaching, decorating, preaching, and honesty. I love how the horse is so honest in responding to our pure cues and our “chattery” ones, as you put it. Now, I just wish those politicians would be honest!

  2. SA Spinks

    The best I’ve ever heard it said! I will be keeping a copy of that in my barn. Anybody who wants to ride one of my horses will take a quiet moment to sit down, read it and take it in. Thank you.

  3. Jean McCormick

    * * * * * *
    Five stars . . . again!

    This applies in so many ways, in so many aspects of life. Sure wish I could have had riding lessons from YOU! In fact, at this point, I’d just be happy to come watch. ❤

  4. Julie Wallace

    Anna, your words helped me recently when my donkey escaped the pasture, of course right before an online work meeting. I felt a rush of fear and pressure and started swinging my rope. As you can imagine, that just escalated things. I took some breaths, slowed way down, chuckled, and dropped the rope and halter on the ground. I went to him, waited until I could rest a hand on him (another one of your great tips), and within minutes he was quietly following me into the barn.

  5. Terry Jennings-Moline

    As I ride down my road there is a turn that I call “The Gauntlet”. Dogs barking and running to protect their borders, horses running to the fence to identify all passers by. After reading your blog I became more aware of the high level of noise and activity facing my horse and realized he needed quiet from me while he took it all in and sorted out what it was all about. Thank you for the information you share. My horse deserves the best I can give him and you always remind me that “less is more”!

    1. Jennifer Canfield

      Loved the article and your response was a bonus. Well said.I could put myself in that very situation and this kind of “being” helped me understand how to not react.

  6. Celeste

    I love this. I used to think I was a good listener but more and more I realize that isn’t the case at all. Thank you.

  7. “Have you noticed that there are way fewer photos of abused and starved horses on Facebook lately?”…..I think they have been replaced by abused and starved politicians. Not sure which is worse. But your posts are always refreshing. Thank you.

  8. Debr

    oh my how true!
    I trail ride with a very good 22 year old rider a lot. We were riding the pony and the draft a few weeks back. The pony is afraid of the draft so hesitates to pass him, but she is faster so needs to be out front. After numerous stops to correct this, my partner got frustrated with both horses just stopping. I would say, stop kicking and yelling. Let’s do nothing and see what happens. Every time, the two horses would look at each other and one would move forward and off we’d go in about a minute. No amount of prodding, kicking or yelling was going to get them to move but patience and calm did. Age makes you calm down, so does riding a welsh pony and a Belgian draft together!

  9. Joan

    Thank you for this one it really hits home. I think I’m being quiet but really I’m simply trying to suppress. I’m learning to wait until I am actually quiet before I do the “next thing”. That can really drive some others batty because I’m “not doing anything” but again I’m learning how important that is. Gosh but my animals must love me to put up all of that. I wonder if they even know how grateful I am to them?

  10. Laurie

    Whenever I find myself rushing through a request with my horse and obviously not reaping the reward that I’m looking for; I’m reminded of potty training my boys (decades ago). Clearly potty training falls into the category of something that can’t be taught in one lesson. Well, at least that was the case for my sons, and I assure you that they have grown into exceptionally intelligent young men in spite of what I might have predicted during potty training. The skills of less is more, go slow, and wait, are incredibly hard to incorporate as knee jerk reflexes, but thank you a million times Anna, for helping to move my limited learning capacity in the right direction.

  11. I once saw Rudd, who by nature was a quiet person, bellow at a rider who was kicking the horse in frustration to “GET OFF!!! NOW!!!” I immediately got off the horse I was on, the other rider didn’t. I watched him grab a rope and lasso the girl, he didn’t pull her off just let the loop tighten around her arms then walked it to her and pointed at her then the ground and loosened the loop so she could get down. He unsaddled the horse and told her she was done for the morning with the comment, “You don’t need to ever kick a horse.” The girl got to sit on the corral fence until after lunch. He explained that the more you carry on, the louder you get, the more you try and force that prey animal to do what you want (predator on their back that you are), the less you’ll get. We all went into the corral and waited for one of the horses to come to us which was his standard for beginning any session. I really didn’t expect any of the horses to go to the girl, but the one she had been kicking came to her, snuffled her and stood near her. Rudd had her get up bareback and with only the mane to hold on to. He told her just sit there and do absolutely nothing, if the horse moved fine, she was to be silent, still and pretend she was a sack of grain. He had the rest of us do the same. After a few minutes he told us to gently push with our knee into the horse’s right side, then stop, every one of those horses turned to the right and stopped. He had us do the same to the left, then gently squeeze with both legs and low and behold, the horses walked forward. I could see the girl’s face, she was surprised almost shocked. Rudd just grinned.

      1. We need him in lots of places, Anna. I wish he could have been at my school as a child, that he could have been there for my step-children and spouse (I did try but know I fell far short of his example), that he could be at every training facility for horses, dogs and people. I realized when going through some old photos that while I have a couple shots of the tie line with some of the horses, I have no phots of Rudd, or Dot or any of their kids and I wish now that I did or that I could take a photo of that dear man that is in my mind.

  12. Shelley S

    Definitely will be sharing this one… as well…. seems I share most of your essays Anna.

    Many, MANY moons ago (anyone else remember the early 80’s?) I took a class with an animal communicator named Beatrice Lydecker. Fascinating lady, and I learned tons from her, but the #1 tip I took away, tell people who deal with animals about and use every day: Animals don’t process contractions, so learn to communicate in positives. Over the years I learned to combine that with the NH training I’ve had to break things down into small pieces and “say” it in a positive way.

    You get into a disagreement with a horse you are rushing to load in a trailer and begin projecting the “won’t”. Take a step back, breathe, and in a lovely soft way, ask for 1 step toward the trailer. I’ll bet you get that step. Your puppy is so happy you came back and jumps on you. DO NOT say “Don’t jump!!!” but instead, ask her to put all 4 feet on the ground. This creates a mental image the puppy or horse can see clearly and there’s no negatives attached.

    Try it. Go an entire day without speaking a contraction and see how everyone responds to you.

  13. Pingback: Bite Your Tongue | Life at Pretty Pony Pastures

  14. Lori Hutchison

    Oh how I love to see an Anna Blake email in my inbox!! And this one – including the comments- was another joy to read. Thank you so much for reminding me to take a breath and listen – it has worked every time.

  15. Sherry Walter

    What a great idea. I’m going to try being ‘jello’ next time things get tense. I should be good at it, being a horrible sleeper I spend half the night telling my body to let go and relax. Maybe if I practice on my horse it’ll carry over to night time.

  16. Thérèse Cartier

    You must be a psuchic or something like it. You just described what I have been going through these past few weeks and going desperate about it. I could not galop anymore for the life of me and war was declared between Petit-Prince and I evry time I tryed… After deciding to take private lessons with a trainer that knows me very well, peace is slowly returning, but we are not there yet. “When things spiral downward, and frustration or fear are on the rise, good intention is easy to forget. ” You could not have described it any better. In my case, fear of falling and breaking another bone… So we are on the mend, between the ears, and regaining a lot of confidence so the girl and the pony can be happy again together riding. And I firmely beleive, by the way, that horse have a sense of humour and enjoy makig us laugh so I will try that to! Thanks Anna!

    1. I think for most of us, being “on the mend, between the ears, ” is a constant. So glad you have a good trainer to work with, Thérèse. Keep up the good work.

  17. Lynell Abbott

    “Sometimes drawing the attention away from the horse is all the help a rider needs, along with a self-deprecating giggle.”
    Love this post, Anna! Your sentiment above I find particularly key to what our prey animals need from us.

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