Escape the Death Spiral: Asking For a Step.

Let me begin by defining a death spiral. It’s asking a horse to do something he just avoided, by circling around and asking again. It could be as simple as trying to move your horse a letter on an arena rail. Or repeat an attempted transition to another gait. Or do an obstacle from the ground. Or ask a horse to step into a trailer.

He avoided it, so you circle, pushing him right back. But then you give the outside rein (or lead rope) a hard pull for good measure. It’s asking a little louder and a little faster the second time, hoping that you can push him through, but he braces his ribs in response to your sharp heel, planted and pressing, not all that far from his kidneys. His hind end skitters to the side.

Now your brain is running like a rat on a wheel, it’s personal, so you circle him one more time pulling your inside rein to the exact degree that he is pulling to the outside, with your seat planted and both legs kicking up a frenzy, along with a tap of the whip. And did I mention you are pulling on the reins during your kicking fit? You’re just trying to get him straight, but he has so much tension and resistance from your conflicting cues that now that he can’t take a step.

Wait, I forgot the most important part. What makes it a death spiral isn’t the circle or his refusal. It’s you. It’s your nagging request that gets louder and bigger and faster and never stops. It’s the overlapping use of flailing cues that become a rant that accelerates and obliterates your connection with your horse, as if the goal or obstacle is a matter of life or death.

The worst part: You might not have noticed that you cued this pig-fight but you are the one having a runaway. Not your horse. Stop. Consider yourself in detention. Let your horse breathe.

“If the inside of a person is bothered, it’s for sure that the outside of a horse is going to show it.” -Tom Dorrance

First, you didn’t create the circling back idea and you don’t get all the blame. It’s somehow become common knowledge in riding. Forget it. It’s a lousy tactic unless it’s your goal to fry your horse’s brain.

One calm circle-back might do the trick, but just one. More than that and the circle-back, intended as a way of correcting an evasion, becomes a way for the horse to evade the war of cues, now bigger than the original task ever was. It trains some horses to frantically circle when they get confused. It becomes a hysterical calming signal intended for you; he’s forgotten the obstacle and is evading your over-cueing now. You’ve changed the subject from the original question to letting him know that you’re a scary, warlike leader.

Some horses won’t go forward at all, preferring to stand and brace for the punishment to come. It can feel like disobedience, but a horse shutting down is a calming signal. It’s your horse saying, “I’m no threat to you; you don’t have to yell.”

Meanwhile, you’re still in detention. Take stock in this hindsight moment. Can you tell when your ego kicked in? Can you tell when you went from creating safety and security for your horse to starting a war that you had to win? It’s a good question. The line between these extremes is small, especially once you’ve stopped breathing.

The other side of that line is anxiety. Humans and horses both respond to anxiety the exact same way. We speed up. Then that speed makes us speed up some more.

Most of the time we throw our horses at something scary, pummel them with cues, and yell, “Brace yourself, Baby!” To be abundantly clear, that’s why you’re in detention.

Back to the beginning. Horses need a moment to think. It doesn’t mean they’re refusing. Have a little faith. Ask politely.

You may only ask for one thing at a time. Then you wait for an answer. Count to ten, more than once if you need to. It will feel way too slow but that’s because you’re used to cueing runaways. After he answers, reward him. If the answer was not the one you wanted, then re-phrase the question. Not louder. Not quicker. Ask for something simple that you can both agree on. Cut the task into tiny bite-sized pieces.

Ask for one step. Reward him, pause, and ask for another. Go slow and don’t interrupt the conversation. Mounted or on the ground, do you and your horse have this skill? Walk, halt, walk? You won’t need your hands for this. He should listen to your seat if you’re riding and your feet if you’re on the ground. This is fundamental; you should be asking for halts and walk-offs in your warm-up.

Taking one step at a time toward an obstacle, pausing, and rewarding each try, will get the job done in a fraction of the time that jerking and kicking your horse in circles takes. The result will be fewer ulcers and greater partnership.

In dressage, we are constantly returning to the fundamentals and refining them. They are the foundation of good riding and when trained with patience and reward, horses count on the connection and comfort found in these simple conversations. Isn’t this the place to learn the finesse to ask more complicated questions? Isn’t that the confidence you want to take forward to bigger challenges?

It always seems like we ask for too much or too little. We’re too loud and our horse is reactive. We are too confusing and our horse is shut down. It can feel frustrating when you are trying to do right, but sorry, what you think doesn’t matter. It’s just you talking to yourself.

Talk to your horse instead. Use your body to give clear cues. Practice them in calm situations. Celebrate fundamental connection but more than that, commit yourself to being a leader who never gives up that profound connection with her horse in favor of a silly external distraction. Like a letter on an arena rail or a horse trailer.

Lead with peaceful persistence: Not aggressive. Not conceding. Not emotional.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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  1. Great advice to remember and a learning opportunity I know I will think of next ride! So easy to get caught up in the moment and forgetting to stop and think before acting. Possibly a mistake every rider has made at one point or another!

  2. I loved all the lessons here, so beautifully, clearly expressed. Although my days of partnering with horses were long ago, I find I learn so much for my practice of Argentine tango from well written observations about working well with horses.

    As you opened, I thought of my handstand practice, how if I have a “refusal” from inadequate body warm-up or stretching, or mental hitch, it does no good at all to try to press on, trying to force the handstand. I must completely reset and calm myself, then begin again.

    When thinking about partnering, and as I teach classes in Argentine tango, I like to consider and have students work alternately in both roles, as leader and as follower, to gain perspective. I liked your observation about a horse becoming quiet and still as a signal to the rider that, “I am not a threat to you.” An inattentive or insensitive leader/rider can easily interpret this as a refusal to work with us, then try even harder the unsuccessful signals.

    Key ideas I take away from this article are: the importance of a reset after a bobble, calming on both sides of the partnership before resuming, simplifying–breaking a skill into pieces, becoming even more mindful that our leads are quietly clear.

    Thank you!

    • What a great comment. Thank you, David. My friend Andrea and I just taught a clinic, using tango as a training aid. Your blog is great, too. Welcome to the dance of the horse!

  3. So much what I’ve been applying with a green TB mare I’ve been riding this week. She’s gorgeous, athletic and a bit insecure. The rule of the week? You can only trot as fast as you can balance front to back and left to right. Soft and steady. The amount of relaxation in just a few rides has been remarkable.

    I’ll miss her when she goes home 🙂 My kind of girl

  4. This might be the first post I’ve ever read where I got past the first paragraph and thought “wait, I can’t circle? what?” but then read on and now I understand, I think- it’s not the circle that’s the issue, it’s the battle that you can create with it.

    Earlier this week, I wanted to do something different, something fun, so we got out some of the obstacles in the arena. My horse’s job before I got him was trails, so obstacles are not an issue for him, but in his opinion they don’t belong in the arena and why on earth should I go over this when I can just go around? So he sidestepped the obstacle (he’s not dumb!) and I laughed and circled back to try again. And I asked him for a halt in front of it. I let him sniff it and look at it all he wanted on a loose rein, though if he tried to side step to go around, I gently recentered with a nudge of leg. When he was ready he told me so- he picked up a foot and stepped up onto it. And then we were over. At no point was he tense, and I was content to wait- so I’m thinking this doesn’t count as even the start of a death spiral?

    • No, no death spiral here. This is a great example of ONE circle-back, followed by a conversation. Leg nudges are great. And what an interesting conversation for your “trail horse”. Good for you, thanks for sharing your clarification, JKS.

    • We too have a bridge in our arena to train the trail horses. My mare’s bodyworker ( she is rehabbing an injury) suggested she back up over it to strengthen her haunches. On our first try, it took us over ten minutes to get one foot on the bridge. At one point she just froze and did not move a muscle while she meditating on the request to back up. I waited endlessly until she ‘woke up’ and took another step. It took us two sessions to cross the bridge but we never had a fight or even a cross word. Patience works!

  5. Thanks so much for this write up! So many of the things I grew up with weren’t quite right, or caused more problems then they solved, so I appreciate the analytical, bit by bit picking apart of common training aids, especially when I try to explain to newbies. The basis of training is more about keeping yourself calm and the conversation open to with your horse.

    • Exactly. And I certainly started this way, too. Most of what we grew up with could be improved, I notice. Thanks for getting it right with newbies!

  6. Thank you for explaining this. While I’m not taking lessons at the moment, I can use the process on the ground with my semi-retired fellow (heart as good as gold, talent, nerve damage from a pasture accident that is hard to accept). It made me remember the feeling that lessons are only so long and everyone wants to get use out of every second, so the pressure is on to get things done. I have had issues with loading (in the past) because of the tension caused by the fact that you have to get somewhere by a certain time or you lose (opportunity, money, whatever). The irony is that for me (well known to have two speeds, slow and stop), I need to ignore the outside pressures, and behave naturally. Oh and I may highlight some sentences and send it to my family, you would think that they would have figured it out by now, that they can’t hurry ME either. 😉

  7. Right on time!!!! Once again!!! THANK YOU! This is sounding like the answer to my question for the last two years as to why my horses stopped with me. I’ve been doing some of this unbeknownst to me – and getting good results. Thanks so much for putting it into words so I can forgive myself a bit!!!! AND actually begin to understand and try to use the recommendations while on top of my horses instead of just when reading your magnificent blog!!!

  8. We don’t death spiral but my horse (when ridden) just stands and refuses to budge. I try to do as little as possible in order to get him moving again, but sometimes to no avail. Have started hacking out in an attempt to help him think about moving forward and it does seem to help somewhat, though we still have moments in the arena – sometimes after only 5/10 mins – when he just stops and says “No, I am not moving”. Had everything checked and nothing physically wrong. I don’t know what I am doing wrong, it is so frustrating.

    • Well, without seeing the two of you, I can’t guess much. If he goes well out of the arena, but doesn’t inside the arena, then I think you might try some arena games. Drag in some obstacles or maybe crank up some music. Another guess, if he only goes 10 min., you stop at 5. Beat him at his own game. It doesn’t mean you’ll have to do it forever. Some horses have bad memories of hard work and no fun in the arena… that might be the thing to turn around. Good luck Joanne.

  9. Yes, yes, and right on time for me too. While my problem today was my left shoulder that refused to stay put, the circling back thing used to become exactly the battle you described, with me becoming more frantic at each turn, and the horse more confused. Today I used it only once because my cues had been sloppy. The second try did it (a canter transition, that was). I am learning to remain still, and let him do his thing, which he usually does if I don’t stop him with some awkward move.
    In the almost four years I’ve been riding Rhythm, the horse I lease, we have become friends, he has stopped biting, doesn’t wear the halter in the paddock anymore and comes to me when I go get him. He is a rescue with a history of good training (he showed 2nd level at one point) and abuse (he was malnourished when my instructor rescued him, very anxious and with almost no trust in humans). He’s a happy horse now, which makes riding MUCH more fun. I’m his official barn mama, and he seems to appreciate it when I follow your suggestions.
    Quiet does it. I even realized recently that the days I ride better is when I have some kind of pain, so I start the lesson (or the practice) with the idea of going slow. Riding becomes easier for me and more pleasant for him when I’m not in overdrive.
    Thanks for your perspective, from both of us.

      • I wonder, sometimes, if horses can tell who the circle is meant for. If the horse does exactly what I ask, but I want to set up and try again for myself (because what I asked for and got isn’t what I actually wanted), he gets a pat for his work, and we do another lap of the arena (or 20m circle) and try it again. We don’t “drill” it but we take another shot at it. I think the calmness is the key here?

      • Well, calmness is always the key and I hope what I described in the blog reflected circling in a way that was not calm. That said, I’d need to know what you were trying to do and if you had cut it into the smallest possible piece or if you were asking for too much at once… but above all, reward the effort by a release. Try again but when you have clarity about asking a better way. Too many times we give the same cue again and if the horse didn’t understand it the first time, that’s on us.

  10. Thank you. Reading your thoughts is incredibly helpful in my new journey trying to understand and communicate in a better way with my horses.

  11. Thank you for another great essay/blog. Finding that space between aggression and concession is a hard one for me. I lean toward too much concession I think. . I have been noticing how soft and quiet I can be with my 2 geldings when I am just feeding, mucking, etc and I started that after reading a previous blog of yours on not yelling at your horse, and how we humans are so “loud” to a horse. It’s amazing truly how little one has to do to communicate to a horse ! Hopefully I’ll be able to translate that wisdom to the saddle. Your last line reminds me of a phrase I find inspiring : the persistant pursuit of possibility.. .. thanks so much for your ongoing inspiration !!!

  12. Another wonderful blog post and so needed in a world that seems to become bigger and louder each day on so many levels. I’ve found it sometimes hard to hold on to my beliefs and perspectives when working with riding instructors who seem to preach more circles, more leg, more contact, more more more everything! So, once again, I thank you for giving me permission to listen to my horses.

  13. so awesome – every single person that deals with horses should read and follow your gentle and effective ways – love it! you do it right!!!

  14. Thank you so much! For Some people the death spiral is what it’s all about. It’s a power trip and you as a human need to win the battles, cause that’s leadership. That horse needs to obey you, it’s as simple as that, end of story. Make the horse do it.
    And even when people see there is an other and better way, often they don’t see that the “making the horse do it” is still intwined through the way they work with the horse. They are still looking for that fast and easy result. The tricks that big trainers use to impresse their audience.
    People have to redo their way of looking at the horse and have to work on them selves. And that’s not easy! But it’s so rewarding.
    So thank you again for writing this. I will share it and hope it will bring more happy horses!

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