Too Much Love: Is it Partnership?

Last week I answered a reader question about Making War on Horses and it got a predictably positive reception. It’s preaching to the choir for my readers. This week’s question is the flip-side of that last one, and a bit more challenging.

By reader request:

“I still have questions about how to express love to a horse where it feels good to both you and the horse. I know now for them it is a lot about being calm and not having busy energy in their presence, and sometimes not much touching, while for most humans it’s about petting, sweet talking and getting close. Geez…..seems pretty polar opposite.”

Sigh; a question that I want to answer with a question: Why is it such a big deal to us? Why must we express our love to horses in such noisy needy ways? Tell the truth. Doesn’t it seem a bit desperate sometimes?

We approach loving horses a little like a bowling ball approaches a triangle of pins.

It’s like we’re awkward insecure teenagers who want to show the world we can get a date. We coo baby-talk, manipulate them with treats, and find that itchy spot so we can make them make faces. Perish the thought that a horse might not want our white-hot affection; if he even feigns interest, we pounce. We cannot keep our hands (emotions) to ourselves.

I’ve said it before; the thing I hate about horses, other than their tiny feet and frail digestive systems, is that their best reward is a release –our least favorite thing. It’s the polar opposite mentioned in the question. I hate that moving out of their space is a reward so much that I ask horses to prove it a few dozen times a day. They happily oblige.

Look at it this way. If you were angry or frustrated with your horse, it would make good sense to take those big ugly feelings and back away. There’s no room for anger in training. Is it possible that when our feelings of love and equine addiction become overwhelming, we should do the same?

I’ll speak for myself. Sometimes I’ll be working with someone’s horse in a lesson or clinic, and he will do something that’s just spectacular. I’ll be gobsmacked; his behavior just pours gasoline on my burning heart. The reason to step back, exhale, and murmur “good” in a moment like this is that my emotional love-fit is as selfish as a temper tantrum would be. It’s all about me and I’m the one always lipping off about being an advocate for horses.

Or more importantly, I want to give my horse time to process what has just gone so well, so I step back or get very still, and let it be about him. I give him time. I shut up.

And I remember an old self-help book by Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages. Back in the day, I hated his excruciating explanation of why, if you really wanted your lover to give you flowers but instead they changed the oil in your truck, it was the same thing. In other words, an act of service is a gift of love, even if it doesn’t smell that way. It followed, if you wanted someone to feel your love, you should express it unselfishly, in a way they understood. It’s an evolved concept if you lean toward immaturity and really want the damn roses.

I’m a horse trainer but the truth is that I’m a couples therapist. I know a pretty fair amount about riding and training, but more often, I translate language between humans and horses, trying to iron out misunderstandings.

Horses do not thrive on drama. Love and anxiety are contradictions to a horse. I wish humans didn’t equate the two either. Emotional runaways, whether it’s anger or affection or even extreme confusion, aren’t positive input.

I don’t want to be a killjoy. I love a horse hug as much as anyone but more than that, I care that he feels confident and peaceful. Safety means more a horse than our undying chatter about love.

If it’s one of those days when a sideways look might reduce you to tears, consider loving your horse enough to stay away. Just because we feel better around a horse doesn’t mean it’s our right to dump our hard feelings on them.

The most common miscommunication I see between horses and riders is our apparent unwillingness to recognize anxiety. Years ago, looking at a horse for a client, the mare’s face showed every painful ulcer symptom I know and the sellers stood around laughing about how she liked to make “cute faces.” Worse yet, we commonly mistake signs of anxiety for affection and end up encouraging their anxiety.

How to tell if your love language is good for your horse? Quiet your mind. No, really. Then be honest and look deeper than what you want to see. Are his eyes soft? His face smooth? Does he show peace? It’s a lot less romantic than your horse mugging you but love shouldn’t look like insecurity.

How to let your horse know you love him? Develop a quiet mind. Give him a release but then pause. Wait for him to answer. It might be closing his eyes or licking. The huge calming signal response is a stretch and a blow. If you love him, give him time and space. Show him that respect.

Want to know my worst fear about my blog? Because I don’t believe in domination training, I fear that my message will be misconstrued to mean don’t ride, don’t ask for improvement, and just generally, let your horse walk all over you and call it love. Humans are such extremists; swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the far other is equal dysfunction.

I want clients to Ride the Middle. To have polite and complicated conversations about willing responses, balanced transitions, and eventually the weirdness of half-pass. Conversations that involve getting one good step, laughing, and taking a break. Conversations without blame, where we ask for the best of each other. The very best.

It isn’t just that we train performance horses, but we train in such a way that horses volunteer, feeling strong and confident. That’s love in action.

….

Solstice in Scotland: We’re in process of planning a series of clinics in June 2018. If you would like to host a clinic or attend a clinic, please contact me here.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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83 thoughts on “Too Much Love: Is it Partnership?

  1. Thank you for this one Anna. It’s such an important topic. I know you really opened my eyes on this subject when you were here. Truly it’s the same when you do body work. You have to be willing to pause and step back a lot to allow the horse the time and space to process what’s happening. The theory being new neural pathways form in those uninterrupted, untouched, pauses.

    I do know that my horses, for the most part, have zero tolerance for extreme emotions of any variety on my part! Including extreme love. They give me the dirtiest looks and positively shrink away!

    Awesome post!
    Andrea

  2. Candice Russell

    Thank you for this continuing reminder that being with horses is not “all about me”. These blogs are teaching me so much.

  3. Cera

    I was fascinated watching your Olympia clinic last summer Anna. You often had riders step away from their horse after riding, and the horses REALLY let down, let go of a lot of stress. Some horses kept seeking you out as you were teaching; you had to keep removing yourself from their path; proximity to you felt good to them.

    At home, I tried stepping away from my mare, and she did not want me to get far from her (easy for me to see that as affection!) Yet when a friend and I tried it with our horses, both horses let us step away and really let down. With this blog post (and my instructor’s help too), now I understand that it is anxiety caused by lack of confidence that caused my mare to want to stay next to me. Thank you.

    I still hope we can someday bring you to Oregon. Cera

    1. Thank you for this… and yes, if their anxiety has damaged their confidence, it’s hard for them to stand on their own in the beginning… Your comment makes me really happy. Thanks, Cera. I hope to make it to Oregon this year, too.

  4. Yvonne Field

    I had the best moment ever last week with the mare I look after. I stood quietly and calmly outside her stall and she slowly walked over and rested her big head against my cheek and there we stood in loving silence together. What a precious guft she gave me.

  5. Michelle

    I so look forward to Fridays. The first think I do is get my coffee and look for the Anna Blog!! It’s the best quiet moment of the day, except for the quiet moments with my horse when all is well. Thanks again Anna. Slowly and steadily we are evolving in to an ever more communicative, relaxed and trusting relationship. Me and my horse that is…..but its not bad advise for my human life either!!

  6. A wonderful blog entry. I will have to revisit this one a few times to let it soak properly.
    I once too great pride in training wild horses but the long term results just weren’t there when it came to trust and feel. Over time my approach evolved to gentling of wild horses and things in the realm of trust and feel have improved. Yet a piece of the puzzle continued to elude me. Your books and your blog plus the opportunity to audit your workshop with Andrea are opening up the realization and awareness that the wild horses I’m so fortunate to be with have been and are doing their part in the gentling process within me.

    1. Maggie Frazier

      Hopefully you and others on this blog realize how endangered our wild horses are at this moment. I think many people are unaware of the current push to eliminate approximately 46,000 wild horses, who by no fault of their own, have been warehoused by the management “system” of the BLM and other agencies of our government. They call it “humanely euthanizing” – but that description only applies to anyone who actually has had their horse, dog or cat etc. put down. Certainly NOT the killing (shooting?) of animals enclosed in holding areas.
      And there is a push to fund the USDA’s inspectors in order to bring back horse slaughter to the US. This was a disaster – environmentally & in terms of animal abuse when it was in force – it does not benefit the equine industry in any way.
      If this subject seems wrong for this blog – where should it be spoken of?

      1. I agree, Maggie. It’s a miserable time for mustangs. The new administration doesn’t share our concerns and it’s depressing. I confess; I don’t know what it will take to be heard by the right ears on this topic… So sorry.

  7. Dianne

    I loved this post. I didn’t realize for such a long time that I was turning my little mare into a “don’t touch me” demon. I wanted to hug, brush, caress, and coo all over her, as she was the first and only horse I’d ever seen birthed and raised here. It took my farrier to make me back off. She became hard to trim and the more I’d soothe her, the worse she got. One day he made me step out of her sight, he snugged her up to the trailer tie, and worked quietly and quickly on her. She stood happily with eyes semi closed and relaxed until he finished. We talked about it and he told pretty much the same thing as this post. I was loving her crazy. Now I can quietly hold her while he works, but he and I converse quietly and ignore her. An occasional pat, and good girl. It works. Thanks for putting this into words again for me.

  8. Karen

    Hi Anna,

    My horse can intuit and feel my positive emotion when I am overwhelmed with a “Wow! good job” even if I don’t use my voice or give her a pat. I believe this is a good thing and she gets it. 🙂

  9. Carole Harding

    Oh my! I feel like you know me and have been watching me with my horse until you had to write this to get the message across. I hear it clearly. I appreciate the delicate way you describe my behavior and I am not insulted…just grateful that I can move ahead in the right direction.

  10. Susan Ketchen

    More wonderful ideas. Thank you for exploring these points so carefully.
    I have one comment to make abouthorses working for releases, as I have seen the opposite.
    When I am playing around on the ground with my horses, I typically use a positive reward system (akin to clicker). If I ask a horse a question and he blows me off (looks off into the distance for eg.) after the third request I will often give a time out. This can be as subtle as looking at the ground, or stronger responses such as turning my back or for more serious transgressions I will leave the paddock. This is one of the strongest tools in my toolbox, the time out. I am using it less and less because it bothers the horses too much. I have had them whinny at me when my back is turned. So my behaviour might well look like a release, but instead it is a punishment. Removing my attention and the opportunity for engagement/reward/play is not positive for the an engaged horse.

    So there are limits, in my experience, to the value of the release. And there is a difference between a release and disengagement. And a release in one situation may not be a release in another.

    Doesn’t this just get gloriously complicated?

  11. Karen Gartside

    Thanks for this and the previous one Anna – so thought provoking and necessary. Much to think about…and then so many apology notes to previous horses to write….

  12. Christina

    “How to let your horse know you love him? Develop a quiet mind. Give him a release but then pause. Wait for him to answer. It might be closing his eyes or licking. The huge calming signal response is a stretch and a blow. If you love him, give him time and space. Show him that respect.”

    This reminds me of Jenny Pearce’s book, The Zen Connection, where she explains how to do all of the above throughout all interactions with your horse. It was probably the most important and difficult lesson anyone gave me, and one which I constantly have to remind myself about, being the impatient and results-oriented person that I am!

  13. Donna McBerth

    I understand what you are saying but my mares come into my space for contact and reassurance. One of my mares is a rescue that has abandonment issues so she is always looking to touch or be close and the other mare takes her cues. But I see where you can easily force your emotions on to them. They are my therapists in my journey of fighting an anxiety issue. Thanks again for your wonderful insight.

    1. I work extensively with rescue horses and they are the ones who need this message the most. Without seeing them, I will just ask that you keep an open mind. It can be hard to tell who’s anxiety is who’s if you are in the middle of it. Thanks Donna.

  14. Invite, allow, acknowledge, release…compassionately and with the energy most needed for the other to feel supported.

    Definitely the most challenging work I’ve ever taken on…for my horse…and my husband. Listening to understand rather than to respond is kicking my butt.

  15. A valid fear, because people do seem to live in extremes. I work for a horse veterinarian, and many times we see the results of training with kindness to be misinterpreted for no discipline, no boundaries. The same thing we so often see in how people raise their children these days. 🙂 We all need boundaries. To raise a horse or a child without, results in a monster. Not their fault – but yours. As for the other main point here, I am oftentimes very guilty of over-loving my horse. Thankfully, my beautiful boy is kind and loving, seems to enjoy snuggles – at times. But, there is definitely room for improvement on my side of this relationship…you’ve given me a new perspective to think about. As always Anna, thank you.

    1. It’s that illusive Middle place again… hard to find sometimes. Great comment, Lorie, and I agree. It’s the dangerous side of being a vet or working for one!

  16. Another timely post 😀

    I was introduced to a friend’s new horse last weekend. As I arrived, his owner was standing next to him, ground tied, alongside a gator with two other horsewomen in it. It wasn’t long before he sidled up behind me, putting his head on my shoulder, snuffling around. Quite a bit of up close and personal happened – initiated 100% by him. I admit to being thoroughly charmed, and responded positively. I’d love your thoughts on this…

  17. Michelle

    Anna, could you please elaborate on anxiety signs that are misinterpreted as affection? Thanks in advance.

    1. I could write a book. Literally. So I’ll be general. First, horses communicate as individually as humans do. So much here is hard to describe because, for instance, there are lots of calming signals that take place with their mouths, from a small release to grinding teeth to big yawns, and I’d need to see the horse to have a good sense about the meaning, combined with other body language. Okay, some combination of actions that look a bit like mugging for treats: a pushy nose, tense nostrils, face making, the feeling that he’s trying too hard. He might rub you with his head or chew on a rope or his halter as you put it on. He could twist his head and loll his tongue out, or other signs that we relate to pain or ulcers. If there is a horse that you are thinking about, video what you are questioning and let me see it. I’d be happy to have a look. Thanks, Michelle.

  18. Annie

    Wow. So true. Just yesterday as my guy did a lovely soft flex and I allowed the stop.. I struggled to stay put.. and lost my battle after a minute… quietly approached and assessed his reaction to my hug. He accepted it with a soft eye and slight turn of head to me, which I read as good. Maybe we horse lovers should carry around a soft toy to squish instead of our horse, when those undeniable urges occur!

  19. Great Blog. Thanks. My horses live in my backyard and the best fun to them seems to be following me around but just staying out of my reach. I talk to them as I wonder around the yard doing my yard chores and every now and again they come up and nibble the back of my neck. It’s the best feeling in the world. I have a very close bond with both my horses, but I always learn more from your blogs. I appreciate you taking the time to invest in your followers so we can be better support to our gorgeous friends.

  20. I read your post last week about making war and thought, “I hope she talks next about not drowning them in ‘love.'” Wish answered! Thank you!

  21. Melissa Guest

    Love love this! I am so guilty of over praising, getting far too vocal and physical in showing my excitement when they get it right, when a release and a murmur of good boy would do.
    I am guilty of being so overwhelmed by the beauty of my horses, they often receive a hug, a kiss, a stroke as I pass by. One, my Morgan, I believe, enjoys the shows of affection and praise and at times demands it. He is very much a ‘human’ orientated horse often preferring to be with me than his paddocks mates. My “Mr Huge Personal Space” cool, white, thin skinned Arab, really dislikes being touched. I have to ask permission and be mindful of his needs. Interestingly after a ride or a play he loves time with his human and allows me to, stroke, cuddle and scratch and really enjoys our time together. My other retired arab, quietly accepts the attention, but I have to be polite, he tells it how it is for him. I adjust to these different personalities but sometimes being human is just too much to bear. My heart explodes with the love I have for my three horses. Love this article. Thanks Anna a timely reminder of the hugely different needs of the horse and the human. Beautiful patient tolerant creatures they are.

  22. kalee graves

    Jeez.. sometimes you leave me feeling..?love .. do not? Pet .. no pet? I walk up to my pony ..😳

    ________________________________

  23. eremophila

    I’ve been thinking back on this, and have come to the conclusion, that I probably did my training in a good era, where things were downplayed more. I clearly remember a dressage instructor, who was also a judge, telling us that a one fingered scratch on the neck after a good response, was sufficient. No-one else could see, but the horse could feel it and know how we felt.
    I can also still see in my mind, (when I was just a teenager) a show mare being brushed, and how much she was hating it. She was chestnut, and fine-skinned and wasn’t interested in show-ring life at all, but the owner ( young woman) was only concerned with winning ribbons.
    Guess the term of “s”mothering fits for some……..

    1. Good word. And horses are such individuals. For some horses a quiet word means more than touch, and my Grandfather Horse, lowering my hand and touching with my little finger, invisible to the judge, meant the world. As for that chestnut mare, I have one of those tattooed in my mind also. Mares. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Well, Vivien, I known horses like that… and I never substitute my eyes for someone else’s, so I can’t know for sure. It could be a few things. (It’s possible that he doesn’t like what comes after grooming, for instance.) That said, I would empty my mind and brush in a workmanlike way. Don’t try to get him to like it, just get it done quietly. I rarely use brushes on my horses, just one of those soft curries. Some horses have very sensitive skin, almost thin and easy to tear. Some horses have a poor opinion of being ridden and it shows up grooming or tacking or bridling or at the mounting block. It could be for a number of reasons and not knowing your history, this is my best guess.

  24. Cody

    I am not, and never have been a touchy feely person. With people or animals (unless it’s a french bulldog, I must touch the little mutants). My bond with a horse is solidified when we move into and out of each other’s space without big gestures or verbal orders. No, premeditation. No, anxiety or wariness. But never complacency. After they first initiated that light brief brush of their nose on the back of my arm or neck.
    My gelding approached me yesterday. while I cleaned out his late barnmate’s stall for the last time. I had the brief urge to throw my arms around his neck and sob and scream the unfairness into his neck. But, I just stood with him staring in the same direction at the empty space. He set his forehead against the back of my shoulder without pushing. We stood that way for 45 seconds. I reached my hand towards him and the moment passed. He took his leave. It was perfect.

    1. Okay, well, that made me cry. So hard to know how loss of a herd mate feels to a being so in the moment, but apparently giving/wanting emotional support is part of it. My sympathies to both of you.

  25. Laurie

    There is nothing more precious than the unexpected feel of warm breath from a silken muzzle on your cheek as you go about your chores. To turn towards your horse and have him draw in your breath as you exhale, defines intimacy.
    Why then, when my human soul seeks connection, do I continue to clumsily invade my horses space and maul him with affection, when he has clearly communicated his druthers with a head toss, dirty look, or sidestep, a thousand times before?
    It is such a challenge being human. Thank you Anna for not giving up on us and valiently trying to lead us to a more evolved state.

    1. Oh that is the deal exactly. So well described, this fate of being human. And no, I won’t be giving up on you; my horses didn’t give up on me and I am paying it forward. Thanks, Laurie. This kind of redefines the phrase, but we’re only human. 🙂

  26. Kitty

    This explains very well my discovery last winter that my horses REALLY LIKE it when I just go out into the area between their two walk-ins and just sit there quietly. I discovered this one day when I sat on the step to do something and they both came and hung their heads over the stalls and stretched their necks trying to reach me. If I held up my hand and gently scratched their chins but didn’t stand up or look directly at them, they really liked that even better. I should explain that one of these horses came to me as a yearling stallion who was frantic and dangerous in his behavior, lashing out and biting, the other was a two year old mare, calmer but did not like to be touched. Now they are both very calm “pocket ponies” who will sometimes come up and asked to be scratched on the face. The big difference happened when I stopped trying to force myself on them and learned to let *them* come to *me* both literally and figuratively – when they approach me I’ll try giving a scratch here or there and if they tell me they aren’t into that at the moment, I just let them be, go on about my business and just talk to them. They are very good listeners xD

  27. Kim Burnard

    My favorite thing about reading your book and blog is that you confirm what I believe I’m feeling and thinking. I have a beautiful, patient ottb, and I adore him and have found that the more complex and validating training I’m going through is our relationship training. My instructor (who happens to be a licensed marriage family therapist – i know right?) is very patient and supports me through these epiphanies. 🙂 When I trust him to do what he knows how to do and give him the respect and release to do it, the connection is amazing. We have had our share of tug of wars and they have all ended badly but the bottom line is lack of trust on my part which translates to why should he trust me on his part. Thank you for writing and adding that extra ingredient that spurs me on to be better for my horse. My new personal tag line is “there’s a lot of control in release”. 🙂

  28. Oriana

    My two horses are very different with regards to touching. My oldest horse does not like hugs at all, and he prefers to be the one that solicits attention. The younger one LOVES being massaged, but will bite if I do not pay attention to a “not there” expression. “Family time” just being together, not touching, is extremely important to my older horse, even if it is for 5 minutes. He had PTSD briefly, because a couple of things caused this flashback, and I did what I would do for a human- be there for them. When I am outside, they like me to acknowledge them, and notice if I am being asked for attention.
    I have also had to be a “crossing lady” for areas that they are not confident with.
    Yes, there has to be a balance between allowing the horse to say no, and being a dominant predator. Some horses “push the envelope” more than others.

    The challenge for me is to recognize those small signals that the horse gives when they feel pushed too much-often just standing there and not doing is all that is wanted, but us humans find this soooo difficult- as we think progress should be FASTER!!
    Like many people, I experienced violence as a child, also as an adult. We work through those things, and as horse owners, realize horses dislike violence.
    I too, have few friends in the horse world as a result.
    A lot of people are totally unaware of what they are doing, and as I am not a professional, and do not do anything with my horses (meaning compete), therefore I am of no interest to them.
    Thank goodness for the internet!!

      1. Oriana

        Erm- the older horse is 15, and the younger one is 14, so in my opinion it is a difference in character.
        Interestingly,it is only in recent years both of them have allowed me to see their fears- now they are not being pushed to perform. Before that I would get “difficult behaviours”!Also, my point of view has changed.

      2. Agreed to all. I would respectfully add that perhaps what you read as character might be a difference in confidence. Maybe not, but it’s something I’ve seen enough that horses have taught me to question it. In the end, our point of view matters more than words. Again, thanks.

  29. jacklincke

    Good . . .very good.

    On Fri, Oct 13, 2017 at 6:01 AM Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” Last week I answered a reader question about Making > War on Horses and it got a predictably positive reception. It’s preaching > to the choir for my readers. This week’s question is the flip-side of that > last one, and a bit more challenging. By reader” >

  30. Oh wow, what a blog post. I’m that needy human, desperate to hug and love my horse! Having read that has been a REAL eye opener as to how I should approach sharing my love. Beautiful. Am sure my horse will be grateful for it. Thank you x

  31. Thank you so much for this. I wish I’d read it years ago – but if I’m honest – would I have taken it on board or been able to? My desire to touch my horses has been stronger at times than the voice in my head asking ‘Is this for you or for them?’. Your comment above about not wanting to be ‘tolerated’ was very poignant. This isn’t good enough for me or my horses now, but I wonder if many of us even realise that this is the nature of our relationships? I have three horses and they all have different thresholds and desires regarding touch and affection. Ironically, it is the cutest, fuzziest one who prefers a hands off approach. And the journey continues…

  32. great post, anna! I strive to keep in mind a couple of mentors
    who say that the horse craves stillness in the human above all. I think that is true. And hard for us humans but we can be trained!

    1. I so agree about stillness. They crave it and most of us are better for it too but it’s a challenge in our busy loud lives to let it be enough. It might be the best thing we can learn from horses.

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