How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist: Horse Version

You know how the cat magically goes to the person with the allergy? Or she goes the person who happens to agree with Preacher Man, the Corgi, who believes that all cats are agents of the devil? Meanwhile, the person who loves cats is cooing and coaxing with raw fish but the cheeky cat hoists her tail a bit higher and gives us that view as she saunters her way out of the room. Cats think people try too hard. They’re suckers for the one who plays hard to get. Corgis are doomed.

How to catch a cat: Just don’t. Don’t look, don’t talk, and absolutely don’t let the thought cross your mind that you’d like to scratch those ears. Then relax and let the cat sneak up on you from behind. Cats can’t resist mystery.

Now pretend that a horse is as smart and curious and playful as a cat. And you want to think you are at least as clever as a corgi. This part is much more complicated because we’re only human.

Sometimes we let our minds get a little soft. We are prone to thinking we’re not predators or prey; instead we act like intellectuals, spending time in our minds and mistaking that for the natural world where cats and horses live. In other words, we’re boring.

We debate training technique but then work by rote, busy with opinion and not being fully present with the horse. We unconsciously halter the same way every time. We lead them like they are bricks on the end of a rope.

What if we thought of ourselves as artists? We agree that riding is an art, but do we hesitate to call ourselves artists? That’s silly; it takes an amazing amount of creativity to get out of the house in the morning.

We are a creative species but we get lazy and use our intellect to doubt ourselves. We let ourselves be ordinary when all we need is a bit of conscious energy. Energy that we can dial up or down like a thermostat on an oven.

Creativity isn’t a mystery, it’s a habit like brushing your teeth. Or cooking with spices. Or loving someone. Creativity is the cherry on top; it’s the extra dollop of energy that adds zing to life. It’s a skill –like horsemanship, only with a smile on your face.

When I meet a horse, I start with a simple question like can you please take a step back? I ask him with the method I least expect the horse to know. I ask politely and he thinks about it.

His owner wants him to succeed, so she interrupts and tells me how she cues him to back. To be clear, all three of us know he can back. And I could care less if he backs, I am establishing a conversation.

If a horse has just one cue, how do we know he isn’t answering by rote, too? Unconscious action might be the first thing we teach horses. I want a fresh response, so I want to engage him. I want to be interesting and mysterious. That’s how he’ll know who I am.

The two things I know more than anything else about horses is that they like consistency. They are like us that way, they like dinner on time and the comfort of knowing they are safe in their home.

And second, horses get bored easily. Just like us. Are you both so used to acting by rote than you think it’s normal? Is your horse unresponsive? Would your horse say that you are?

So, I give the horse a minute to up his game. Anyone can back, I want him to be curious about me. Not because I have a stick or a loud voice but because I listen to him. If he looks like he’s thinking, then I reward him profusely and it’s game on. But if he looks like he isn’t thinking, I’m not fooled. Horses are as smart as cats; I reward him, too. Because energy should always be rewarded.

Here’s the secret: Disarm him with unpredictable release.

Be brand new; fluid in your movements, soft in your eye, agile on your feet. Step out of his space. Unpredictable release.

Go in his pen and actively don’t catch him.  Hold the halter in your hand and studiously do not try. Unpredictable release.

Go to the mounting block and don’t mount. Scratch his withers and go untack him. Unpredictable release.

Work at liberty but trust him. Ride bareback and massage his ribs with your knees. Ride with a neck ring that you are patient with… patience is creativity, too.

Instead of warming up with too much contact too soon, along with too much distraction and worry, warm up with too much music and fluidity. Unpredictable release.

Being mentally active means the rider is using less physical strength but keeping her energy up. He mimics you. If he isn’t forward, well, wake your-own-self up, change the length of his stride, longer or shorter using just your sit-bones. Think with your seat and legs. Still your voice and breathe. Crank up the music.

Long walk in a soft leg yield, barely asking his withers to the outside. Think inside leg to outside rein while moving in serpentines. Continue reversing direction until neither of you can remember having a stiff side.

Sometimes ask for tiny things and sometimes big. It isn’t that you don’t train the hard challenges; it’s that your train them as if they’re fun.

Then ask again, and be ready for a different answer. You don’t know what he’ll do and that’s the best part. It’s the call to energy and creativity. Unpredictable release.

I want to be the most interesting thing in the world to my horse. I want our conversation so scintillating that he hangs on my every word, and by that I mean, that I don’t cue by rote. I keep my energy percolating.

I want to have the consistency that makes him feel safe and yet still be mysterious and interesting enough to hold his attention. I want him focused on me and I’ll train that by focusing on him. I want him to think it’s more fun working with me that staring at plastic bags flapping in the wind.

Ride like a cat. Listen, bat some ideas around, then mentally pounce on one and chase it down so you can play with it. Now reward your own creativity for making work feel like play.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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  1. Love this! Thank you! I am tired of hearing about riders “winning a battle” AGAINST their horses! WTHeck, it just shouldn’t be that way…

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. So interesting – today’s post is making me think about raising young children, training dogs, and basically, working with any thing living. If all you do is say no and don’t to your children, they become dead to your voice the same way horses become dead to the leg. If dogs hear their names and the word no over and over, what’s going to happen when you really need them to come to you off leash in the middle of a hundred distractions? Our voices and our words should be, as you say, the most brilliant, interesting things ever. And it’s so much more fun to be met with eager eyes and ears than ignored. 🙂

  3. After a fairly disastrous lesson last night, your words are like a soothing balm. I was riding a brick last night–and the fault was mine. I did’t take the time to listen and what might have become an honest conversation ended up being a monologue that had no point (heck, it wasn’t even funny). So. Much. To. Learn. Thanks, Anna!

  4. You always leave me thinking; morphing the images in my mind into a silent conversation that can flow from my soul and out of my body, hoping to connect with my friend. We take slow deep breaths and exhale together. I appreciate stillness with her. I can feel it when she’s heard me. I give her respect and she gives me her attention & willingness. It’s so simple yet so delicate.
    Thanks Anne, it’s been through your ability to convey your personal insights that I am getting to that special place with a horse. I’ve quit practicing patience. Practicing instead to actually slow myself from the inside out, from the thoughts in my head down to my toes. My horse responds, letting me know when I’m doing well. I truly rejoice in the small achievements because for me and my horse, they are huge. Thanks again for your writing.

  5. A resounding “YES” “Me too” to SA’s comments! I don’t normally do the beginning riding training on my babies – but last year brought home a young mare my usual trainer found impossible. She would NOT move – ever…. So now I’m trying things I’ve learned from this blog…..and this entry is perfect timing once again for me! I’ve started working with her in my round pen and not forcing her to move. She walks on the lead fine, but if you try to get her to move when free, she just shuts down. I did not try to force her to move, just slight encouragement and then after about 15 minutes took her out and brushed her. Yesterday, for the first time ever – she came up to me to be haltered with a face that said “What are we gonna do today” and an eagerness I am not used to with her. I sure hope that means we are making progress…..thanks for all the wonderful thoughts I would not have had myself!!! We’ll see how much “cat” she and I can muster. 🙂

  6. I am working with a horse owned by a trainer who sought me out saying the horse had lost his confidence…not sure what that means but I actually suggested a program that parallels what you were talking about. Since the horse has at least 3 people who handle him, I suggested changing his expectations including: girthing him from the opposite side, leading him from both sides, riding him differently – on the “wrong” diagonal occasionally, using lateral not diagonal aids for the canter, etc…He has not been able to be turned out as much as usual because of a pending sale of the property…I thought the change of expectations might re-focus him and spark interest instead of boredom in what he is asked to do every day…but you said it much more comprehensively and I agree with all of it…

    • Hooray for this good horse, because of a bit of creativity. Thanks for practicing the “art” of training. This is a special horse… thank you for reading, but most of all, thanks for helping this horse, Elizabeth.

  7. I don’t want to be my horse’s safe place, I want to be his fun place. Thank you for this.

  8. I needed to hear this. I really love this. I have been working on building a fun relationship with my horse that leans more towards play than serious work. It has been working too because she seems willing to want to play lately and so have I!

    • I’m on a trip, giving 4 clinics in 7 days. Long days, missing meals, staying in hotels. Hot, dirty… it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. I’m having the time of my life. Never loved work more. I think the answer to training an upper level dressage work is to play hard,too! Thank you for commenting,

  9. All you’ve said, I saw Rudd do. If he stepped into the corral they all came to him. They weren’t looking for food, they were engaging with him and he with them. Even though I don’t have a horse, I’d love to watch you working with one (or more). And, yes, thanks for this.

  10. I recently met a horse in a town I regularly visit. He’s owned by a woman who never rides him or even takes him out of the paddock for a change of scenery. We’ve been eyeing each other off when I walk past with my dog but I waited till he had curiosity about me and then he approached the fence. He has an intelligent face and is SO bored! He’s fed and brushed and paddock is OK but I see he wants more……
    Any advice please Anna?

    • Tough question. First, as someone who works with rescue, if the horse is healthy, that’s wonderful. Too many horses have their physical needs neglected. Second, are you good at seeing lameness. Could he have an issue? I have two young retired horses who are never ridden… because they aren’t sound. Do you know how old he is?? My best advice is to meet his owner and ask about him. If he’s alone, he needs a friend, but that would be one of his species… Good luck.

  11. FUN!!! That’s what it’s all about for us all, in life. Thanks for reminding me that at the heart of my relationship with my horses lies JOY. I think sometimes I get so into the “I’m not doing this right” that I forget that the very best thing about being with your horse is the happiness they can bring, IF you let them.
    Thank you again for helping me to remember!

  12. New to the this blog and group. I have gotten very stuck and frustrated and have created issues. This afternoon, I sighed and was going to go back to rote, because that is what I have been taught again and again. I just couldn’t go out and do that today, put it off again for another day. I know I have to change but that’s not easy, especially when I’m so stuck. Maybe tomorrow I can start with a little different idea and attitude. Thanks for the insight and inspiration.!

    • Change is hard. Period. There are trainers who will tell you that making war with your horse is the path to partnership. It isn’t. If you are in a hole with your horse, if the “issues” are loud… Then stand next to your horse and breathe. Remember why you have a horse, all the love that you feel. It’s going to work out. Thanks for sharing this bittersweet comment, Marsha.

  13. Oh my goodness….what it would be like to take lessons from you. The people who come to your farm and learn from you week in, week out are truly blessed to have you. The horses you work with even more so…..

  14. I love the “whole 9 yards” of this, Anna, especially the unpredictable release! I have been employing it successfully with my 2 newer TBs, Now if I could just get more interesting (less boring), that would be WONDERFUL!
    Thank you, again, Anna. I am, again, inspired.

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