Big Dreams, Low Expectations

I’ve become a real party-pooper when it comes to talented young horses.

It isn’t that I can’t see the potential; that my heart doesn’t catch in my throat at that fresh brilliance. The beauty of a young sound body, a quick mind, and that total possibility. I know what it feels like to train a horse who catches on fast and offers more than you ask. A horse who seems to not want to stop; who’s curious and willing. A horse who really tries to please, so you get caught up in the thrill of progressing quickly. You’re sure he’s a prodigy, that he will be the exception to every rule.

Horsepeople are dreamers. Even the old-timers. Even when we know better.

So, you or your trainer ride him every day. You haul him a few times a month, he’ll get used to being alone in the trailer. Sometimes you ride twice a day. You know there are abusive trainers who push young horses too fast, but that’s not you. Besides, he says yes. He asks for it.

I’m going to make a painful comparison now. Doesn’t this sound like something they used to say about young girls who dress up on a lark and try to pass for eighteen?

I became a party-pooper about young horses from working with mid-life horses in trouble.

Standing next to them, it’s easy to imagine them younger. Looking at his eye now, you know he wasn’t born this way. That there was a time when he reached out as much as he is tucked inside now. That he was the kind who once gave his body and his heart but has lost the trust to let you stand at his flank. Looking at his stiff body, you can still get a sense of how brilliant his trot used to be. His poll tenses nervously if a human is within ten feet. You don’t have to be a professional to see that his face has been ridden hard. His face, that once reached out with curiosity and courage.

The problem with young horses who are over-achievers is that we humans take this period of youthful grace as who they are. We get attached to brilliance and label it their base level work. On a day when he loses confidence, a day when that young horse goes more like a normal, slightly resistant horse, we think they are guilty of a list of failings and we start the fight. Our change is imperceptible at first. Our dream of them is bruised so we lose just a bit of faith.

Maybe some harsher aids will get his brilliance back.

NO! If that previous sentence doesn’t make your teeth scream, you’re doing it wrong. Not sorry for my bluntness. I’ve been around horses enough that when I see that broken horse, it’s easy to imagine who he once was. The flip-side is that it’s also easy to see the perfect youngster, possibly broken by eight or ten.

To be clear, I’m not talking ambitious trainers starting long yearlings to sell before they’re four-year-olds, fast and dirty and half-lame. I’m talking about people who love their horses and are enthusiastic about good care and training. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill when things start out so strong.

But young horses start to question training at a certain point. It’s normal, not a betrayal or a rebellion. You should see it as a sign of intelligence. The question we ask isn’t if our horse will hit a bad stretch in work, but what will I do when he inevitably does?

Because all training, even positive training, carries some stress. Just like living in a herd has stress. Normal stress is caused by being alive.

And it isn’t just young horses. You might be re-training a rescue horse or even just beginning with a new-to-you horse. Progress can start fast and feel great at first. There will be bumps; he will regress. How will we deal with that?

The traditional answer has always been discipline. “Push him through it. Don’t let him quit.” The reason I’m so against this way of training is the number of horses who flunk out, damaged and frightened. Certainly not all horses but too many.

So, this is my annual reminder that horses aren’t any closer to perfect than we are. They have bad days but we don’t have to turn it into a bad month. Or a bad life. At this time of great stress holiday season, it’s good to give horses a break and remember the big picture.

Most horses live a long life. Not long enough for us loving, greedy humans, but still, a long life. The majority of their lives is spent learning, and then aging. That mid-life sweet spot is comparatively short. Rushing to the sweet spot to make it last longer is the real dream (or fault) most of us share.

Understandable that we might push harder than we intended. It doesn’t make us bad riders, just human ones. Forgive yourself. And forgive horses for not living long enough.

Then pretend you have all the time in the world. Keep an eye on the horizon and celebrate how far you’ve come. Remember how special it is when a horse volunteers. Remember that you sit in a sacred place. If you want to discipline something, start with your mind. Say good boy often.

When you do hit a training block, don’t fight. Shrug. Exhale. Ride around it and approach it in a different way. Railbirds are notoriously short-sighted, so work for your horse instead. Riding isn’t war; it’s an art. You and your horse are building a masterpiece.

If you want to work something on contact, keep your expectations on a short rein. Then your dreams can gallop the infinite, where they belong. Learn to tell the difference.

It bears repeating: The arc of a horse’s life (or our own) doesn’t look like a golden rainbow. It looks more like the jagged readout of a heart monitor. There are ups and downs in each heartbeat. It’s how you can tell we’re alive.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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  1. Awesome! I saw a video recently of a well known dressage trainer and their prodigy–a 5 or 6 y.o. who “may be the youngest horse to go Grand Prix.” he totally fit your description of being athletic, willing, and precocious. My feeling the whole time was are they taking care of the whole horse? I don’t know that they are or aren’t but it seemed like a lot of pressure on a youngster and I hope they are.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Anna. It came at just the right time! I went yesterday to ride my horse for the first time in over 5 months b/c of my surgery. Needed help with saddling, bridling but finally got him to the round pen. He was a loon! Acted like he had never been in a round pen, snorting, racing around, totally blowing off my cues, not the calm, responsive horse I was used to. After about 15 minutes, he was still wild, still paying no attention to me. I decided not to get on him-I’m a “mature” rider and no longer bounce when I hit the ground. Back to the trailer, unsaddling and driving home. The next days will be spent with lots of ground work and going back to basics, which he does well, and later trying another ride, me remembering how wonderful he usually is and believing that we will be again. Taking it slow and re-building the trust and excellent bond we have will be the focus.

    • It’s just one day in a whole shared life. Good call; it’s a “weather rich” environment this time of year. Great comment, Susan, and welcome back to riding.

  3. This came at the right time for me also. I just purchased a 6 1/2 year old Gypsy Vanner, 16h. He is a big love bug and loves attention. I remind myself that when I go to the barn, it’s not a crisis if I don’t end up riding (he’s got a LOT of hair so we spend a lot of time grooming, which he loves) , because we have the rest of our lives together. The saddle I ordered hasn’t arrived yet so we do a lot of bareback riding. I can’t believe how wonderful it is to be on him and just walking. We don’t have a destination, we just enjoying our time together.

  4. Lawd, I love your columns. I don’t have horses; I have an agility dog. Replace the word horse with dog in this piece and it rings so true (it’s why I follow you). Especially this, “Maybe some harsher aids will get his brilliance back.” It didn’t get my dog’s brilliance back, it gave her avoidance behaviors. I changed my outlook, ignored the naysayers, and my amazing, enthusiastic, wicked-smart, talented dog came charging back to me. I know I’m on the right path – despite those who are still naysayers – when I get complemented at nearly every trial on how happy my dog is in and out of the ring. I’m happy too, and so proud of our relationship regardless of scores or Qs. The Qs have returned, and that’s gravy.

    • Well, imagine how much I love this comment. I’ve done a tiny bit of agility, so much of this does translate. Thanks for the comment. Love that Qs are gravy, Rebecca.

  5. Thank you Anna. I’ll never forget being told by a reining horse trainer that Gin was awfully green for an aged mare. She was 5 years old!!!!!! Really? Then he asked me what I was going to do with her. I told him we hadn’t decided yet. We were still trying to figure out what we like doing together. He looked at me like I was a total nut.

    Sometime later I realized he thought she was aged because the horses he had in training and competition were retired by 5 years old.

    Meanwhile Gin is still part of my family and doing well at 28…. I feel okay about calling her aged now.

    Love this!

  6. Wise words, Anna!

    When I hit those difficult training stages where we seem to be going backwards, I frequently remind myself of Ray Hunt’s wise words, “Work with the horse you have today.”

    It doesn’t matter that for the last six months he’s trailer loaded (or whatever) with no hesitation. Today, for whatever reason, he is not confident trailer loading…and it is up to me to help build his confidence.

    And you know what? When I address it from that perspective, it usually doesn’t take long to see an improvement.

    If, however, I take the attitude, “I hate when a horse knows what to do and refuses!” then I set the stage for a clash of wills that is likely to take longer than necessary and end badly.

      • Thank you, Mary! I wish I could claim credit…I’m still very much the student… 😉

    • Yes, work with the horse/dog/child/adult you have today, the one in front of you. Be patient, remember there are things you don’t know, can’t know. Be patient with them, be patient with yourself. Does it really matter if they know what to do and refuse? I don’t think so. I think it behooves us to stop, take a good look, listen to them, listen to ourselves, take a deep breath and ask gently again or just walk away for awhile and try later or tomorrow. I know it works with my dogs, did with my stepkids and does with my spouse.

      • Yes! I’m finding so many things in horsemanship that apply to other relationships.

        The horse-human relationship is a bit more straightforward…less complex. So, learning is easier for me in that environment. Then I try to carry the learning forward to other more complex relationships.

        Here is my blog post from this morning, in which I discuss applying rein management lessons to parenting an ADHD teen:

        Thanks for sharing, Aquila! 🙂

  7. My little Arabian and I started our work together when he was 9. Prior to then he had been a stallion, living isolated from horse and human alike. I thought to myself “oh good, a blank slate”. So we started our story together. Problem is, when he unexpectedly has a set back in his understanding (or in my understanding) I can’t blame former humans with crude training methods because I’m the only one who as attempted to influence him. It’s a hard truth, and though on occasion I have had the knee jerk response of “Really?”; this inability to place blame has mostly kept us from rushing and encouraged me to try and understand rather than forcing a solution. Anna, it’s so good to have you validate not rushing because I have been accused of being too patient.

      • I laughed out loud when I read your response, Anna. I fear my “blank slate” perception was less optimism and more stupidity. He had been recently gelded when I got him, but in spite of that, he has always demonstrated that he, on occasion, remembers what acting like a stud looks like!

  8. This is so wonderful and so true! It should be a posted in every tackroom – in large print!!

  9. Vacations aren’t just for people. Horses really enjoy their freedom as much, or more than we do. And they don’t forget anything that they’ve learned. Contrary to what so many believe, they remember everything, and in many cases come back, even more brilliant, and ready to pick right up where the two of you left off. We humans are so greedy, and impatient, expecting and sometimes even demanding perfection. Right now. It’s so sad we can’t be even half as forgiving as our horses are…

  10. Yeah, I took my younger self as who I am … and I’ve discovered I am so much more than that … and in some ways less than that … and in other ways totally different than that. Love this!

  11. Great blog – as usual. I love the final paragraph. That’s what I meant when I said that you find the words that I would never come up with! They are so often the words that stick with me and crop up with I need them. Thanks!

  12. Amen to this. My mare and I were having a really great summer, sometimes no improvements, sometimes tiny ones but always enjoying things. We had a lovely fall here and it would’ve been wonderful to keep up with the riding but life got in the way and she’s been ‘on vacay’ but she’s still the sweetheart she was. It doesn’t matter if I’m on her back or just hanging out around her. I’m sure once things settle around here (and winter goes away) we’ll start again. Maybe a few steps back from where we left off, then again, maybe not. Either way we’ll have some fun.

  13. Once again, your comments are just so insightful. I have never been ambitious when it comes to riding/showing my horses. For years, I enjoyed riding my nice, average horses. Then, my perfectly, perfect OTTB came to me when I was 50, and he was 3. We went slowly, well, just because. He was willing, obedient, handsome, and I was mindful that he was my “special” horse. Then, when he was age 17, we entered our very first Musical Freestyle. This had been a “bucket list” dream of mine for years. We got a 79% that day, and it was the Highlight of my entire showing career. I was 64, and it was definitely worth the wait. Slow and steady not only won the race, but we won the blue ribbon. He retired from showing at age 18, and we had 4 more wonderful, laidback years together before his death, last June. I savored each and every step of our journey together, in the slow lane.

    • Oh Barbara, what a wonderful memory, thanks for sharing it with us. I love freestyle (and competition) and one of my finest moments was a freestyle. What a good boy, I’m sorry for your loss. More than that, I’m happy for your gain in having him. Thanks for commenting.

  14. I came across this poem on IG soon after reading this blog posting. It refers to knitting, which I love to do, but it didn’t take me long to see the possibility for other things, like horses!
    Poetry on Demand by Eddie Cabbage
    Christina and Knitting
    The weaving together
    of possibility
    stitch by stitch
    and thread by thread
    as the dreams
    dance with
    deep within her
    magical head
    The passion of
    and the
    persistence of
    rhythm woven
    till it
    keeps you cozy
    with success
    and a gift

    • Damn. You’re right! Love the use of the word rhythm, (the foundation of all good horsework.) Never thought of knitting this way, but maybe doing anything well has the same base ingredients.

      • If Kim didn’t preface this poem being about knitting, I would have sworn it was written about the perfect horse/human relationship!

  15. How timely! Kept wondering why I wasn’t more affectionately bonded with my Lipizzan gelding after two years.

    He would start walking away when I came to get him, when I was hoping for a horse who would come trotting over, nickering, especially by this time, after how many treats and petting.

    Stopped taking lessons just now so he and I could take our time and practice soft contact at the walk. We were always pushed into trot and canter, resulting in coming above the bit, stiffness, wrestling, kicking to get him back on the outside rein….you know the picture.

    Well, yesterday I rode only at the walk, mindful of being soft and giving with the reins and not only was he round the entire session…gave him free stretches every few minutes, but he did a lovely square halt, quietly backed several steps as opposed to the tail wringing dragging backwards of the previous day’s ride….BUT THE MOST AMAZING PART IS:. he was suddenly very affectionate with me. Wanted to linger when I got off to turn off the camera, nuzzled and wrapped his neck around me. I am 70 and this means more to me than any “levels” we might reach. He is happy and responsive and obviously thoroughly enjoyed the new soft and slow method.

  16. As usual, your masterful way of thinking applies to horses and humans. Thanks for being the Anna that we love to “listen to”. Especially during this “stressful” holiday season.

  17. Thanks Anna
    3 years ago I took on a 6 year old Arabian who had been gelded just 6 months prior. He struck me from the onset. The person who had taken him from a five mile square, running with geldings had him for those 6 months and apparently did some ground work. Her plan was to be doing ‘slow 50’s’ by the end of the summer- another 4 months. When he arrived to me he was terrified, haggard and continued to lose weight. I couldn’t touch his legs or anywhere beyond the shoulder. There were many things that triggered explosive and lightning fast reactions. I spent a lot of time being neutral, not reacting myself, as scary as it can be. I took a long time to think about saddling and longer for that first actual mounting. However, there was a point where he felt like he was keen for me to get on and lets go. I didn’t and glad of it as it took some time for him to adjust to weight carrying. He managed to build his own self composure , is still an Arab but is able to contain himself- I still stay neutral and make suggestions. I can/can’t imagine what he would be if he had been pushed to perform in that short period of time. I know what I have to build on and the beauty he presents continues to awe me.

    • Rose, thanks for sharing his story with us. It sounds like you are doing a good job with a horse that had a less than great start in life. Good for you, and thrilled for him. Arabians are so intelligent; you’ll have a strong partner for life. Happy New Year, in more ways than one, to both of you.

  18. Oh , Anna…. how my heart aches that I didn’t realize all this when I and my horses were younger. I have so failed them …. and I will keep struggling to make it better for them every day forward. Thank you for your wisdom. p.s … the kittens say hi 🙂

    • Me, too, Annette. But they are a forgiving species… there’s hope for us. (Bet the kittens are HUGE. Give my friends up there a scratch. Or if that’s weird, just say hi. 🙂

  19. Gosh. I don’t really”train” horses any more than anyone else who stands within shouting distance of one. I’m a farrier and that’s trainer enough for me. I’ve seen every horse you describe here in this post.

    Something occurred to me as I read it, tho’. If ever I’m working on a horse who’s just being a pill, being so pesky or nasty that I want to just bury a toe in ’em, I try to just drop my rasp, go toward the front of the critter and close my eyes and visualize them as a baby. A tiny, cute little bitty foal. Oh, they must have been so cute – those liquid eyes, the long, long whiskers, the wobbly legs with knobby knees. Momma would have nickered and whickered and snuggled. The humans would have been surprised and delighted, exclaiming their joy… How precious. How perfectly perfect and with every wonderful thing ahead for them… I notice how my breathing slows, my heart rate calms down, my frustrations ebb away. Almost every time this happens I open my eyes and find myself looking directly into their own. They look me over, sniff and reach toward me with their muzzles, take a deep breath. I try to find a welcome spot to rub for a moment, pick up my rasp and start over. Sounds wussy, and I’ve been laughed at, but I don’t get kicked 😉 Just visualizing them in their innocence, before they learned to fight, helps me stop fighting.

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