What To Do When Your Horse Is Wrong

WMIntoSunsetIt started small. It started the way it usually starts; the rider pulled on her horse’s face. It’s a fundamental disagreement: the rider thinks it’s her right to control the horse and the horse doesn’t like having metal jammed on his jaw bone. They weren’t even on the same subject.

So, the gelding got fussy. The rider kicked and steered, trying to make him go. But the horse heard more whoa than go; all the steering happened by pulling the rein back, not that is was ever the rider’s intention to give the horse conflicting cues. There was head-tossing and mouth-gaping. It started small.

The next part is tough. Maybe it’s because we’re predators or maybe it’s our ego about having our way, or maybe we’ve been taught that we must show them who’s boss in some Neanderthal version of dominance, but it’s as if the rider has blinders on, unable to see (hear) her horse. The horse notices it immediately. It takes the rider longer, of course. It isn’t that the rider is mean or belligerent; she just believes she’s right.

It’s just about now that things can start to speed up. It’s like we have a snowball theory of disaster that says if the horse hesitates a second, or gives just one thought of resistance, then all is lost. That one small action will necessarily gain speed and size, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and so we panic and accelerate. Which, by the way, works like a cue for the horse, too. Now things are coming apart quickly.

“If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that’s just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong.” -Ray Hunt

Yes, it’s a quote by a western trainer, Ray Hunt. Lots of classical dressage trainers say the exact same thing, but not with the same blunt honesty.

So right now, I’m hoping that the rider is frustrated. And if the rider pauses before throwing a temper tantrum, she might actually feel that frustration and anxiety, and take it as a cue to herself, to go slow. Hooray! It’s a huge win to recognize an internal feeling and stop the snowball race long enough to become self-aware.

And in that tiny pause that feels almost like surrender to the rider, the horse can take that cue, too, and things begin to decompress immediately. It seems like an accident at first, almost a kind of butt-fall into better leadership, but it counts. Your horse just confirmed it and rewarded you for better behavior. You have to wonder who’s training who? But if you’re smart, you accept the invitation to partnership and start the ride again.

First, let a moment or two pass. It’ll feel like forever, but you are teaching yourself patience. When you label it that way, it should feel slow. Learn to enjoy it.

Now the game begins. It’s that game that we all played as kids; we called it Hot and Cold. As we searched for something hidden, others let us know we were getting warmer and cooler.

It’s a good comparison because training should feel a bit like the two of you feeling your way in a dark room. You are directing your horse toward something he doesn’t have a word for. And if the only answer you accept is perfection, then it’s you that’s failed. Instead, you are negotiating a better answer each time, by rewarding him as he gets warmer. The dog training term for that is shaping a behavior, step by step. Or if you’re a behavioral scientist, you call it successive approximation, meaning an approximate answer on the way to the right answer.

Regardless of what you call it, it means that you have evolved away from being someone focused on failure who makes serial corrections; nagging the horse about what he’s done wrong, again and again, making each ride a punishment. Now training becomes more like a game of cooperative hide-and-seek, with habitual rewards for the efforts your horse puts into the work. The more he offers, the happier everyone is. Now it’s as if you nag him about being a smart horse.

Here’s where creativity matters the most. Knowing that your horse is never wrong, it’s the rider’s challenge to ask a better question, then accept and reward that answer, and continue patiently and cheerfully, until the best habit is consistent. Training is nothing more than the “serious work” of playing a game of collecting and rewarding good experience for your horse.

A moment for the cynics in every discipline that will say that positive training is fine for trail horses or amateur horses, but if they’re asking for really hard advanced work, then pushing the horse hard is justified, whether it’s reining or dressage or jumping. Shame on them for selling their horses short, and for thinking so little of their own skills.

So, there you are in the middle of your ride. Take a breath and remember the best ride you ever saw. It doesn’t matter what riding discipline, but the horse’s ears weren’t pinned and his tail wasn’t clamped. He lifted his feet and his body looked strong and soft at the same time. It was freedom and partnership and trust, and most of all, you could tell it was art because it lifted your heart.

Then, whether you are a beginning trail rider or an ambitious competitor, ask your horse if he wants to play a game. Start where your horse is at right now. Ask for just a stride of walk, and reward him generously. Let it be enough, as you set about helping your horse be totally right.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

58 thoughts on “What To Do When Your Horse Is Wrong

  1. Susan

    Very good article. We all need reminders to reward the smallest efforts our horse gives us no matter the discipline , because next time it could be a huge effort. That feeling of harmony is utterly fantastic! Good read, thank you.

  2. leslieatfarmfreshfun

    Just shared on my fb stables page and will ask all my students to read this. Brilliant AGAIN Anna, thank you!

  3. Terrie Emilson

    Anna may I post this to Facebook? Or would you please? Just an awesome article – thank you!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    1. Please share away, there is a small blue “F” button at the bottom of the post. (I do share on FB, but if you and I aren’t friends, it would be hard to find.) Again, thanks, Terrie.

  4. Francine

    Dear Anna
    I just finished reading your three books and now I feel a bit of withdrawal sadness. Thank goodness for your blogs! Your writings bring such delight and too many smiles to count.
    A re-posted entry on Facebook had me discover you. I was hooked at the first one.
    I never owned a horse and a horse never owned me. I don’t even have the joy of living with a cat at the moment. So go figure…
    Thank you so much for sharing your truth. It does enrich my life.
    Cheers from Canada. Sending Love to all the creatures on your farm…

    1. Thank you so much for reading the books, and welcome; we are a friendly bunch. Even without a cat, you are so welcome here. (No kidding, really appreciate what it takes to get the books in Canada.)

  5. Please do share it, by clicking the blue F button at the bottom of the post, thank you. (I do share each post on FB, but if we aren’t “friends” you would have a hard time finding it. Again, thank you, Terrie.

  6. giantsdancefarm

    Reward the smallest try. Then again, and the next try too. Gee, it works on our horses, our dogs, our husbands/partners, our children, our co-workers… but mostly ourselves. Positive reinforcement. It’s an awesome thing.

    Thank you for another great reminder Anna.
    Shelley

  7. Thank you, Anna. I try to remember that each horse and each day with that horse should be “read” like I observe my students before giving a lesson/assignment. However, I can remember a couple times I did not read my horse correctly and it does not feel good. They covered for e because they had great forgiving dispositions and I did not repeat my error once I reflected on it and analyzed was had happened.

    Please don’t ever apologize for quoting Ray Hunt. If you had seen how his little bay mare performed under or even near him, you would know that he is a great communicator. It was sad to see him later do clinics from a four wheeler, so everybody: get out and ride!

    Appreciatively,
    Kathy Anny

    1. Kathy, I have had those same opportunities to learn from a good horse in hindsight… it’s why I write. And no apologies for Mr. Hunt… the other master who is clean and blunt is Alois Podhajsky. Love to hear it without the hearts and flowers. Thanks for the great comment. I really do wish I had seen him.

  8. Of course, I love this! I’m reading and nodding and feeling the emotion because it’s truth. Thanks again Anna, for the picture of how it should be with us, and for giving us permission to make mistakes and learn. Patience is so hard for me. Breathing and just taking that moment to be, instead of do, is a gift. Our horses really do teach us so much more than we have to offer them.
    Oh, and I had to laugh about Ray’s words! Oh my goodness, how i miss him – he never minced words or molly-coddled any of us. But, he was pretty much always right on. Leave your egos at the gate. 🙂

  9. Oh, and I’d just like to second what Kathy Anny said about Ray too. She’s right about that, the man was a master communicator, and a master horseman. He might just walk his horse to the mail box, but he’d do more on that ride than some of us do in a lifetime of riding. It was almost magical to watch.

    I rode my big Appy gelding in one of Ray’s colt starting clinics. I was terrified most of the time, but amazingly elated at the same time. Anyway, my big guy was in love with this little paint mare and it was almost impossible to keep the horses separated. At one point, Ray was working with the paint mare and her rider. My colt took some offense to this, and thought to intercede his manly authority and step between Ray’s mare and the paint mare – gave a short jab to Ray’s mare. I gasped quietly, and grabbed the horn. I knew we were going to be disciplined for that error in judgement. A swift slap of Ray’s flag between my colt’s eyes sent us into a quick spin and a galloping retreat to the other end of the arena. Ray yelled over his microphone to, “don’t teach that horse you can fall off!” as I held on. 🙂 I loved it. And I didn’t fall off. Lesson learned…

  10. Celeste

    Your blogs and the comments from the readers always touch me and enlighten me, giving me hope I can take some of this out to the barn to share with Sugarfoot. Thank you!

      1. giantsdancefarm

        Anna, I *KNOW* mine train me from beyond. My blessed, revered, amazing first mare is always quietly in the back of my mind, 25 years after she left my physical presence. Other since have taught me lessons, but none so much, so well.

        Shelley

  11. Erin J

    Dear Anna, I started following your articles back when you posted on Horse Junkies & love getting your weekly articles.
    I am a pretty classic about to turn 40 adult ammie dressage rider with high ambitions & a need for patience. I have thought so many times about responding to soo many of your posts & i now ride pretty much daily with your voice in my ear.
    I came across an article the other day that struck a chord with me & this post made me think of it again. I read that to communicate, honey bees dance in the dark. They have no light or words to describe a found food source to their hive mates & so dance with feelers extended. To me, this idea of dancing with your partner all senses extended, to move with them to understand what they are trying to tell you was powerful. Thank you for reminding me yet again to listen.

  12. After 30 years of riding I finaly found a trainer 8 months ago who is teaching me about gentleness and communications with the horse. I am 4th to Prix St George level and have always been taught to make the horse do things. Now I am helping the horse do things and am asking for feedback. Mistakes are not viewed as anything more than indicators as to that something needs to change and ANY improvement is “celebrates” not just perfection. My riding is slowly improving as I am an over achiever, over worrier, over thinker, over rider anyway and feeling pressured that nothing is good enough has caused a lot of tight rides and frustrations. I have come a long way and have had terrific, light rides in self carriage where thoughts can make the horse dance – but I always have to be vigilant to not push for too much or to use strength instead of cleverness and to not force the horse to do things he cant do well at that moment, THANK YOU for this article!!!!

    1. Thank you, wonderful comment. I think what you’ve described is so true. To do this work with lightness and a happy horse, you are on the right path. Not the easy path, but the right one. Good for you!

  13. Laurie

    My little Arabian gelding and I have some history with a “scary” place to ride on my property. I’m not sure if he gets scared because he thinks I expect him to, or is there actually a physical source for his spooking. Anyway, on a warm winter day recently, I took him out to ride at our proverbial crime scene. It was no surprise when he spooked, but after I asked him to stop, I stopped; I took a deep breath, rubbed him on the neck and started to slowly resume our work with lots of reassurance. Anna, I was able to slow things down, keep working, and end on a positive note because of your perspectives. Your blogs and books are essential and I’m grateful that you’re here to help us.

    1. Woohoo, music to my ears. Such a wonderful comment, and my Arabian gelding’s ghost is laughing along… good for you Laurie, but even better for him. Thanks for commenting.

  14. Sarah Jackson

    Thank you again, Anna, for a marvelous and timely blog. A friend and I were just having a conversation about the horse never being wrong earlier this week and how much “sweeter” that feels than criticizing …and how much more “do-able” it all seems from this perspective. . I don’t think we can hear or read this too much since we humans seem to have a tendency to drift away from this wisdom occasionally. I’m sorry I never met Ray Hunt either. It was his book, Think Harmony, that put me on a path of envisioning how things could be different between my horse at that time, and myself. I try to go to Harry Whitney clinics whenever I can because he TRULY teaches from the horse’s point of view and with the philosophy that the horse is never wrong, he’s only doing what he thinks he should be doing – ALWAYS. So I am ever so grateful for Ray Hunt, Harry Whitney, YOU, and the others who teach this profound truth.

  15. Dear Anna,

    I have followed your blog for a while and have become a fan.

    Thank you for your wise and inspirering words.

    Best wishes,

    Kristin

  16. Kate

    STANDING APPLAUSE!!!!! Thank you for putting into words the concept I have FINALLY grasped courtesy of my “free” (read as behavioral challenges) horse. Life is SO much better for both of us now that I have become aware and adopted this change of perspective!!

  17. Sherry Walter

    That was good. It reminds me of a small moment years and years ago that has stuck in my mind ever since. I was boarding at a small farm and the owner was working a young horse on the long line and that horse was full to the brim of himself. Suddenly John stopped, dropped the line and walked over to the rail. There he stood with his fore arms on the fence contemplating the clouds. Then he walked back to the horse, gave him a rub and started over. No hissy fits, no temper, no nothing.

  18. Melissa Guest

    Great read as usual. Tiny steps, reward every try and if it doesn’t work the approach is wrong. It took me a bit of time to find this out. My worst enemy when I went back to riding at age 50 was tension and worry of what may happen, how could my horse trust this distrustful human on his back. I’ve learned a lot since then and receive so much more from my horses.

    Love your blogs, every one food for thought and valuable reminders. Just finished Stable Relation, LOVED IT. Letting that settle before dipping into the next.

    Thank you Anna 🙂

    1. For what it’s worth, our chemical and hormonal make up at this age is different…the thing you describe is the biggest challenge I see for most of my clients… not easy but somewhat common… as if that helps. You are on the right path to a better riding place than you were capable of 30 years ago.

      Thanks for reading the books; I appreciate it. As an indie publisher, every kind word matters.

  19. Daisy

    Hi anna, as usual, you hit the nail on the head; I am only just beginning to realize how sensitive my whisper is; what I take as a NO is just him saying that was wrong. I still have hopes of riding with you some day. take care, LOL, daisy

    1. Hi Daisy. I’ve been thinking of you and Whisper, as I worked with a Haflinger last month. What special horses and yes, so very sensitive. Still hope to make it to your half of the state one of these days, too. Take care and Hurry Spring!

  20. Oh Anna, what a beautiful memory comes rushing back for me with your words “you are directing your horse toward something he doesn’t have a word for.” My “small edition” (15.1) OTTB and I were in a lesson with a trainer who came for one weekend a month from another state. Our barn owner was working with her at Gran Prix level and the rest of us were far down the spectrum from there…especially my very sensitive boy whom she’d already patiently relieved of two serious track-related problems.
    So on this day, we were going to begin work on a new movement and before we began she came up to us and said, “When you first ask for something your horse has never done before, he’ll be honest and will first give you his best answer. Ninety-nine times in a hundred he won’t have understood the question…but he will have tried! So, you just say to him “that wasn’t quite right…let’s try it again.” That way you’re appreciating his response and are encouraging but not “correcting.” Very soon he will understand it better and so be more able to perform it. Remember, you are addressing his mind, not his body.”
    Ultimately when this trainer could no longer come, our barn owner continued to work with us and later said of Tulle, this former little track horse, “He’s beautiful!” Tulle enjoyed his beautiful long retirement… and moved on at age 35.

    .

    1. A beautiful comment, thank you for sharing Tulle with us. And building ‘try’ in a horse is much more valuable than any particular movement… (we act sometimes like a horse is wrong for not knowing something, rather than enjoying introducing that thing… ) Thank you, Barbara, and bless this good horse.

  21. Love. This is my favorite blog ever and speaks to exactly what I hope for in my own life every day.

    When I read the title I already wondered – what could that mean… horses aren’t ‘wrong’… and that’s not what I imagined from your blog… it was a great way to enter the writing… with a ‘huh?’ In my mind.

    This whole idea… It’s what made me ‘leave’ what I saw and knew in my horse friends and mentors and try to go my own way without much experience except that I knew it could be different that I saw around me. I often feel like I’m barely scratching the surface but it’s a hunger for more of that every time. I love how you wrote about it so clearly- and I’m inspired to keep on the journey together with my fabulous mare who is gernous to teach me as i ‘lead’ her.

    1. Thanks for this wonderful comment; I think it’s the attitude that makes a great rider. And I’m almost 63, riding and competing most of my life… and like you, I often feel like I’m barely scratching the surface. Horses are infinite everything; it’s how my farm got it’s name. Yay for us!

  22. Great article from a person who deserves to be called a horsewoman! Riders really need to remember that it is an animal they are sitting on and it might need time and special effort to understand what they want! Ever more when it comes to young horses!

    As a rider myself I have started a blog on related subjects and I find the posts you share extremely inspiring!

    Looking forward to reading more!

  23. Pingback: Training young horses. – The Horse Rider's Read

  24. Jeannie

    Wow Anna, I’m a little late in reading this, but let me just say this – You hit it out of the ballpark again!

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