Part One: The Strong Silent Type (Of Horse)

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I’ve said it before: While growing up, I saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon more often than I saw my relatives. My father oversaw the TV and he liked real men like Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. (I’m sure you can guess what he thought about James Dean.)

Later, like lots of us, I bought the notion of a strong, silent leading man when it came to movie star crushes. They had square jaws and walked with a swagger, always a little mysterious. I should stress here that they were acting. It was my mid-thirties before I connected the crash between my taste in movie idols and my constant whining that the man I was dating wouldn’t talk to me. Duh.

It took longer for it to dawn on me that my horse was stoic, too. His resistance wasn’t easy to read. He hid lameness and acted tough. He did what I asked, even if it was too much. Neither of us wanted to admit that we probably held a grudge. We liked each other, so instead it was more like passive aggression on both sides. Truth be told, you can’t force a horse talk to you anymore than you can a man. In hindsight, I think some of our training problems were more from ulcer pain than anything, but again, he didn’t give me the usual signs that a more reactive horse might have. I’m still apologizing for that.

Disclaimer: I am extremely aware that trainers love to classify horses into personality types that over-simplify horses, so it’s easier for novice horse owners to make assumptions. None of us are that easy to pigeon-hole.

Instead, I consider most horses on a continuum, one end being stoic and the other end being demonstrative. I deliberately choose these vague words, give lots of room for individuality, and always remember that it isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

That said, people like stoic horses because they seem quiet and easy on the surface. They’re commonly lesson horses, therapy horses, and kid horses.

Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com– Stoicism: the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint. Synonyms: patience, forbearance, resignation, fortitude, endurance, acceptance, tolerance.

Does this definition make you a bit sad? What sounds heroic in a movie character is kind of soul-killing for a creature as beautiful as a horse. If you are a dominating rider, you might want that kind of hostage mentality, but if you are hoping for an equine partner, this is leadership without heart.

Old timers had another word they used for stoic horses who seemed almost too easy to read: Counterfeit. They looked like the real thing, but there was something not quite right.

It isn’t that stoic horses are dishonest; they’re subtle communicators. If our cues get loud or inconsistent, he just tucks inside of himself. It isn’t disobedience so much as self-defense. He could look well-trained, but his eyes are dead. You might want to think everything is fine but as time passes, and he gets more withdrawn. He might drop his head between his knees in submission; he might look like a push-button pleasure horse on the surface, but he gives you none of his heart. He doesn’t want to try. Maybe you’ll call him lazy and kick harder, but louder cues will just shut him down more. If you are honest, it feels more like coercion then partnership. (Don’t even dare consider spurs.)

Then it happens, just like the big bloody shoot-out at the end of a western movie. After he’s taken all he can, a stoic horse might explode with emotion. The rider says, “Everything was just fine but suddenly, for no good reason, my horse just started bucking.” Or worse, all the light in their eyes finally goes totally black and they just lose the will to live, looking years older than their age. (Not that it’s my business, but if this is your goal–a blindly obedient, soul-dead ride–then please, don’t have children.)

How to best partner with a stoic horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. Especially if he’s a draft breed. Assume he hates being under-estimated and talked down to just as much as you do. Breathe yourself quiet. Show him respect and don’t interrupt his thought process. Wait for him to volunteer. Listening will require better patience and effort; stoic horses aren’t as blunt as demonstrative horses. Rather than bullying him through work, let him be who he is and answer in his own way. Yes, he will answer eventually, but you don’t get to be the boss of that. Allowing that horse to volunteer is your single goal.

When he gets the answer right, or even partly right, reward him lavishly. Let him know that his input matters. He might act a bit like the shy kid who blushes when the teacher praises him in class. That’s how you can tell it’s working.

Now the tendency of your work together is starting to shift. Instead of being a robot, he might even offer something more than you ask for. Yay, and don’t you dare correct him for trying too hard. See the big picture: He’s learning and shaping his behavior is much more important than demanding perfection.

Nurture this little sprig of confidence. Reward him with a big release. Like that same shy school kid, he doesn’t want to be hugged until he faints; instead slack the reins or the lead. Release! Let him stand on his own feet and feel pride in himself. Pause. Let his introverted bravado bask in the broad daylight. Then reward that; thank him for his honesty.

The day will come when the two of you will be together and you’ll show him a challenge. Just reveal it; nothing more. In your quiet mind, you’ll hear him say, “I got this.” You’ll feel him breathe; your legs expanding with his chest as his steps out.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

 

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

80 thoughts on “Part One: The Strong Silent Type (Of Horse)

  1. Shelley

    GREAT POST!
    I love that it was sometimes comparing horses & people– a great lesson for us all. I will save this!
    Thank you!

  2. Dee Morris

    Hah! As the steward of a gypsy Cob (think solid and feather, lots of feather) the unspoken assumption is that he’s “a dope on a rope”. He arrived here resigned to being treated as such. As if. He is an incredibly quick study and will think where the others react first. You can nearly see him take a deep drag on a cigarillo, crinkle his eyes and with a thousand yard stare say “I reckin so”. Perhaps he might be modelling Clint Eastwood (my own guilty pleasure in the Strong & Silent School of Men lol). Great piece, Anna😬

  3. Eileen Hollembaek

    You are spot on in your descriptions!! I board in a small (22 horses) stable,,have witnessed the stereotyping you describe. My gelding was “reactive” when I bought him, now 6 years later he is the “clown” of the stable & totally predictable,,,learning his language was my best gift from him. Thank you so much for your inciteful posts.

  4. Nancy Beers

    I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but I wish more people would really consider what they’re looking at in their “bombproof” horse. Thanks for putting this out there!

  5. Angela

    This spoke to me more than my horse. I am coming to recognize my own “counterfeit” tendencies today, thank you. This helped me recognize the motivations behind that coping mechanism and the path to relationship. Great piece Anna thank you.

    1. Oh… it’s always amazing to me. I get up fridays at 3 am and finish my blog in my little room, and than wing it to the internet. Comments like yours let me know how very “live” the conversation really is. Thank you for making these words matter to you, Angela. Your horse thanks you, too.

    2. SA Spinks

      I felt compelled to reply to her piece but just couldn’t find the right words. You did it for me. Thank you for the words Angela, and thank you to Anna for making me see where I was blind.

  6. Deirdre Britton

    “And don’t you dare try to correct him.” Followed by, “you know you can trust him” Love this, I hear it from my coach when my greeny offers way more, and quite often.

  7. We currently have a 3 yr old Standardbred trotter in the barn. He’s shy and quiet. And BIG. Yesterday one of the grooms asked me if they could turn him out with my 21 yr old OTTB for a while. Since I “know” the horse, from feeding and hanging out in the barn with them. I said sure. So out they went. My boy wandered away. “Chucky” stood there for a moment. I think he was a bit nervous. The pasture is about 5-7 acres. Flat and open. And there was/is still snow. He was out and I swear he didnt know what to do. Then he just took off. Running, trotting. Bucking and rearing. Periodically stopping and rolling.
    My boy stood by the fence adjacent to the old mare’s paddock, and they stood watching him. I could hear them talking to each other “Ah. Youth”
    This morning Chucky had a bit more confidence than he did during training. He stepped pout of the barn with no hesitation. Walked onto the training track without shying and pulling. He was still a bit nervous about the wash stall. But not nearly as bad as he was. He needs that slow, positive, breathing. And he’s lucky that the grooms are good enough horse women that they saw this and are able to give it to him.
    My own boy. Well, he’s got years on the rest of his barn mates. He let’s everyone know how he feels and what he’s thinking. He’s both vocal and physical, but not to being dangerous. Yesterday I was taking too long to let him out, since I was waiting on Chucky to be ready. I had put my coffee to where it normally would be out of reach. He stretched. And I mean STRETCHED and knocked it over. When he’s upset about a move, or being in due to the weather. He poops in his buckets. Feed, and both water buckets. But he and I have had 13 years now to get our “talking” down to where we understand each other. I dont know if I will be lucky enough to be blessed like that again. It fun knowing that he and I have that type of relationship. That trust. And watching true horse people recognize’s each horses own individualism. And then adjusts to that. Is truly wonderful.

    1. Yay for 3 year-olds who need to run, flapping like laundry on the line in a windstorm. Good for him. As for your horse… you gotta love a poop memo. (He got you right in the coffee…ouch!) What a wonderful comment, thank you so much for sharing it.

  8. Kristin

    This really transfers to donkeys, too. They are so smart and so stoic. And so mis-understood. Thank you for your wonderful posts.

    1. Amen and times-two. More so than drafts or any kind of horse. It’s why I have so much respect for donkeys. Don’t let the longears fool you, is what Edgar Rice Burro says. Thanks, Kristin.

  9. Tracey Sands

    This is beautiful. Although my horses tend to be the sensitive and reactive type (my life’s goal is typically to help them feel safe and confident), I love your description of this personality type, and the respect and nurturing these horses deserve. One of my current equine partners, though he has at times been spooky and reactive, also has aspects of the “strong silent” in his character. I always think that, even though he is a generous and affectionate partner, he sees me as a flawed, if loveable friend, rather than an invincible protector. He’ll let me take charge of things as an act of generosity, but ultimately believes in his own “might and main” if things get really rough. I suspect that his previous owner regarded him as stubborn and stoic. He’s really neither, but he won’t share his troubles with just anyone. I’ve had vets tell me how stoic he is when they can’t see the faces he’s making at me. Anyway, although I’ve known fewer of these horses than the sensitive hotbloods I’m typically drawn to, I so appreciate your insights and your insistence on the needs and the intrinsic value of this character type.

    1. Thanks for this comment. This is what I meant when I said there is a continuum and there will be no pigeon-holes. We must learn nuance! Thank you, Tracey. I like this horse.

  10. Lisa Mirhej

    Anna-
    I just need to tell you how grateful I am to you for your writing!!!! You words are true, strong, courageous and so wise on a spiritual level. Your Friday blog is such a bright spot for me as I navigate through my journey with horses.
    With warm and profound appreciation,
    Lisa Mirhej

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. I am humbled. No kidding. Comments like yours let me know that the unpaid hours I spend (the barn does need to eat) is worthwhile. Lisa, thank you for thanking me, if that isn’t too weird.

  11. You have the uncanny ability to create this picture of everything you’re describing to come to life in my mind. I can’t even imagine how much fun it would be to take lessons from you and have you share some of that inspiration of yours with me, on my horse. *so encouraging* And my horse would have more fun than me, I’m betting. That’s where I strive to be, but struggle so in the engagement of such riding. Thank you again, for sharing what you’ve learned and encouraging us that there’s always hope, and room for growth. Loved this!

    1. My clients would like you to know that there is a certain amount of human eye-rolling because their horses do probably have more fun than they do. They would add that you have to get used to the weird horse impressions that I do… but really, it is all about being encouraging. Why else do it? Thanks, Lorie.

  12. JKS

    Knowing I have a stoic, I try to be extra aware of the tiniest bits of communication he offers. Tail swishing is often the biggest signal I get, and it usually means he’s uncomfortable- either his arthritis is giving him trouble or he needs a longer warmup, physically or mentally. But he doesn’t limp or show any of the more traditional signs of pain. Sometimes the biggest help is the realization that he IS a stoic, so I have to listen better and be quieter myself. And I’m finding that if I happen to ride another horse, they appreciate what he’s taught me about communication, too.

  13. Lynell Abbott

    Thank you, Anna, for getting up at 3:00 a.m. to share your knowledge with us. I, too, am grateful for all of your insights. Our horses (stoics in particular!) need good horse people like you to translate for us humans what they are trying to communicate.

  14. Jennifer Canfield

    Well said, much needed here and thank-you so much. I have such a horse and was told by a trainer he’s not an honest horse. I shot back that I think there is no such thing as a dishonest horse. We just aren’t always honest enough with them or ourselves to listen.

  15. Jane MacDonald

    I’m in tears. I bought just this type and loved her. But I saw the subtle signs of hesitating, not wanting to go forward. I ignored them, and finally got the explosive bucking. I got very hurt and she luckily ended up with a compassionate trainer who rehomed her to be used for equine assisted learning. Now others have to tune in to her. Finally.

    1. So sorry Jane, and I hope you are healing. Thank you for commenting… I am sorry for your experience and thank you so much for sharing it. I hope it all works out, but this part is always true. Horses are heartbreakers. But I think you know that. Again, sorry.

  16. Jeannie

    Horses are heartbreakers, and it breaks my heart to see how they are so often treated. My first horse – very stoic. Me a new rider – inconsistent, confusing signals. About a year into it I became aware enough to realize he coped by going inside himself. So I set out to fix myself, learning from compassionate inward seeing horsemen and women. Just a few steps along an infinite path, yet enough to see light come into those kind dark eyes. Thank you Anna for your words about this very precious type of horse.

    1. Hooray for you! and it’s a wonderful infinite path; I love being on it, too. Intention goes a long way with a horse, don’t you think? Thanks, Jeannie. Great comment.

  17. PharmaUnicorn

    I work in r&d and recently I was employed by a company with a grading system based on the big-selling “for your improvement” book. At first, being a Brit I was sceptical about how I would base my own performance rating on this introspective nonsense! I was grudgingly converted however, when I came to the concept of over-used skills. Something that you’re really good at, but over-use to cover up your weaknesses. This is human counterfeit! Maybe I’ll do my horse an end of year review in march?! :p
    Thanks for your thought provoking words.

    1. No, thank you for your thought provoking words! Over-using skills to cover weakness might be a thing with us too. Human counterfeit? Totally plausible. Thank you! and keep us posted. 🙂

  18. Daisy

    Thank you so much for your insight in words for those stoic, sensitive horses out there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! daisy

  19. Amen!!!
    I rode a tri-color pinto mare named PeeWee the summer I worked at a livery stable (they are horrible places for horses). She was on the short side, kind of long bodied and withdrawn. We were allowed to chose one of the horses to be our regular mount when we took the trail rides out. I didn’t so much chose PeeWee as she chose me. I did what Rudd said, stood in the corral quietly and waited until one of the horses came to me, except there were three of them. Then PeeWee came over and chased the others away. After the first week she started following me around like a puppy, if I turned around she was there. She refused to move if anyone else got on her or she’d flex up to start bucking. I’d have purchased her if it had been possible. She wasn’t the greatest horse to look at, but looks aren’t everything. She had a great heart.

    1. Maggie Frazier

      The first place I boarded had a hack line. I remember the horses that came in (from auction usually) they pretty much all had the same look/appearance in their eyes. Didnt interact much & seemed to be waiting – to see how they were going to be treated. Just a whole different look in their eye – cant describe it any better than that. But after I had gone to a couple auctions – I could understand – I believe its the same as a dog or cat (any animal) that gets taken to a shelter. The act of throwing away an animal – sending them “down the road” – what it does to them – is beyond brutal. Far too many humans dont understand that bringing an animal into your life should mean being responsible for ALL of theirs.

      1. I think it would just about kill me to be forced into abandoning one of my dogs. I certainly would never do that to them if there was a way to avoid it. I must agree, if you take any animal into your care it should be for their entire lives. I’ve held each of my dogs as they left this life, it was hard and painful, but they gave me absolutely everything they had, how could I do less for them? I’ve had some very wretched times the last almost ten years but have kept my dogs and they’ve kept me. I know that look, that suspendedness and waiting and fear and loss. Some people don’t seem to do much better with their children. I do know that if a person can’t take proper care of a dog or cat they certainly shouldn’t have kids, horses or any other animal.

      2. Maggie Frazier

        Agreed wholeheartedly! Abandoning any of my animals (horse,dogs,cats,chickens,ducks & rabbits) has never been something I could do. They all lived with me till they passed away. My kids feel the same way (how could they not?)

  20. Thanks for this! I also do believe that others make horses appear flat…there are so many more dimensions to their personality 😍 and we should appreciate them more and listen more.

  21. Carole Boegli

    You are so talking about my beloved mare, my greatest teacher
    I never knew how slow Needed to be until we got together, and when I started to reward the absolute slightest try she started talking and getting involved with me
    Thank you 😄 Carole

  22. Sue McKibbin

    Absoutely LOVE this one!!

    Thanks Anna, so well explained.

    Warm Regards from Australia

    Sue

    On Sat, Feb 25, 2017 at 1:04 AM, Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” I’ve said it before: While growing up, I saw She Wore > a Yellow Ribbon more often than I saw my relatives. My father oversaw the > TV and he liked real men like Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. > (I’m sure you can guess what he thought about Ja” >

  23. giantsdancefarm

    Anna, have I mentioned recently that think I love you? I’ll just put that out there first. I can’t imagine we’ll ever meet in person, but to do so is on my bucket list, short version.

    Your writing is so spot on, so relate-able, so frankly profound for us crazy horse (equine) women, dog rescuers, cat laps, chicken adopters. (“More chickens? my long-suffering husband asks.)

    I’m saving my pennies to give everyone I know your books.

    I had the great good fortune to be involved in an exceptional riding program through my teens, then was invited to return as an instructor after college until the program closed in 1986. I’ve known many horse and ponies via that program, all along that stoic spectrum, though as the program initially began with a polo player’s almost all OTTB herd, our mounts tended toward the hot and reactive. The program was run by an amazing woman and an all volunteer all female staff, and I think that more nurturing female energy plus tons of turnout helped keep most of the light in most of the horses eyes.

    I purchased the equine love of my life, a 22 year old exquisitely sensitive red TB mare from the program when it closed in ’86. I first saw her in 1970, and it was literally a life changing experience for me. I vowed to someday be a good enough rider to deserve to ride Susie. Sixteen years later, on one of the most thrilling days of my life, she became mine alone. No more sharing her. She taught me more in those final 8 years of her life than any horse has ever taught me before or since.

    I’ve had 9 other horses since first got that mare. Some I purchased, some I bred. Looking out my window I see the last four I ever imagine having in this life. Two are home bred 1/2 Clydesdale, the other two are MFT (hubby wanted gaited, I demanded a diagonal gait. Compromise, it’s a wonderful thing.) The Clyde mare those crosses are out of? Definitely not a stoic creature. And yet another creature in my life who benefited from the lessons in sensitivity, lightness and studying response and reaction that my red mare taught me.

    Now I need to go get a tissue.

    Shelley S.
    Giant’s Dance Farm

  24. Erica Saunders

    This reminds me so much of my TB/Perch cross who had bounced 6 places in 3 years when I got her as a project horse who understood walk/trot/stop/steer(ish) when I got her. Almost everyone expected her to be a plug of a horse and she was not.

    I will have owned her 3 years in August, though she would beg to differ on the direction of ownership. She’s bloomed from a shut-down, undemonstrative, anxious giant of a horse into know it all, person-owning, swaggering, (still) giant of a horse with a world of presence. She’s become a forever horse that has easily given me as much as I’ve given her. From panicking at going somewhere new, now she shows up and hangs out like she owns the place because she knows I’m there. And she’s given me back more jumping courage than I had as a teenager.

    1. Woohoo! What a great comment. Not all horses blossom quite like she has, but what a great life you two share now. Here, here for acting like she owns the place. (and yes, once they start ‘talking’, there’s no shutting them up.)Thanks for sharing with us, Erica. Give that big girl a scratch from me.

      1. Erica Saunders

        I will Anna! Even when she’s a diva and declares she ‘can’t work in these conditions’, she makes me laugh ALL the time.

  25. Sarah Jackson

    Thank you for this blog. The horse I adopted last year is a stoic one…. don’t know his history exactly except he was seized through legal action ( so we know he had to be in bad shape at some point, right?) and I found him at a horse sanctuary in Tennessee, fell in love, and now he lives me in Texas. His herd mate is a more reactive horse, and they seem to be a good influence on one another, and sometimes I look out there and they seem to be having a “bro-mance.” I see evidence that I am winning his trust and I hope to keep building on that. … I especially liked your point about not under-estimating their intelligence!!! . I think about a video and a study in which the researchers were measuring the heart rates of horses who APPEARED to be having no reaction to scary things, but their heart rates were in fact spiking . But you’d never know it by looking at the “outside’ of the horse.

    1. Interesting research; I believe I’ve been on horses who made choices about scary things, too. I’m certain we share confidence back and forth… maybe heart rates spike, but trust holds us. Great comment; thank you, Sarah.

  26. Pingback: Part Two: Norman, Is That You? (The Reactive Horse) – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

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  28. I started my riding career at a dealers barn that posed as a rescue, I met so many of the stoic type horses that were at the point of blowing up from a lack of understanding, which is what made them end up in the auction house. I had to learn from the get go to understand each ones needs. Many of them were so done with people that they were impossible to catch. I got my own horse as a baby, a PMU from Canada. Since day 1 she has been the stoic type. Over the years she has helped expand my ability to listen to them b/c I never knew that my saddle was hurting her until she started to try to bite my arm off and I realized she needed to see the chiropractor. Then later on her acting up again because she had been tolerating ulcers after a lot of stress and changes. Over the years she has thought me the ‘letting them make the choice’ type of training. I’ve used that to break and work with several horses that others gave up on. I love how you emphasize the fact that they are individuals, I’ve meet a lot of trainers that can’t seem to realize that.

    1. Great comment… we learn in hindsight (the saddle and the ulcers) but from that we can pick up on things a little sooner, until we can practically communicate with them… 🙂 Give that good mare a scratch for me. Thanks, Katelinn.

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  33. Sue McKibbin

    Hi Anna, I shared your post with a couple of friends. My horses and I had fun today adding that to the start of our play. Thank you Warm Regards Sue

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