Riders Against Bullies

Railbirds. Everyone’s a critic.

I’m no fun anymore. I can’t go to rodeos, a tradition I grew up with. As much as I know Thoroughbreds love to run, I can’t watch a race. They’re just babies.

It’s even harder when it gets personal. Maybe someone you know shares a video. A group of riders cheering on a friend, which would be wonderful except that the rider’s horse is coming apart. He’s frightened, which everyone reads as disobedient. So they are all cheering her on as she kicks and pulls. The horse’s eyes are wide, his nostrils are huge. Of course, his ears are back.

The friends encourage the rider to fight harder, show him who’s boss. But the horse can’t think now. He isn’t sure what she asked in the first place. He holds his breath and hopes it will end soon. Eventually, the rider gets tired and slows down the cues enough that the horse can oblige her. The friends applaud.

The rider pulls her horse to a halt, jerks a rein to pull his head around to her knee, backs him hard with her hand, and gives him a few more kicks for good measure, so he’ll know she’s mad and he’s wrong. It’s what she’s been taught to do; what her friends expect. The horse’s eye goes dead but he’s bracing his ribs against her spur attack.

What has the horse learned? Maybe that when he gets frightened, his owner becomes loud and unbalanced. Maybe that he should shut down when he feels anxiety. One thing is for certain. The horse has lost trust if he had any in the first place.

Sometimes it cuts closer; it’s these same friends who give you training advice because they think you are ruining your horse. Because there are contradicting definitions of leadership, followed by judgment on both sides. Passion and hard feelings.

If we are honest, most of us were taught to ride like this when we started, to a milder or more violent degree. Some of us are changing our ways and looking for better communication and partnership with our horses. Riding is an art that takes a lifetime to learn. If you’re lucky.

The problem is now you’re no fun anymore either. Once you can read your horse’s body language, it’s hard to ignore. Maybe you look at the video and turn the sound off. Instead of listening to the sales pitch for the training method, you listen to the calming signals of the horses in the video.

The most frequent question people ask me is what to do when railbirds offer training advice that’s “old style?” What do you do when you see someone being violent with their horse?

Start here: Don’t attack them. Even with words. No one changes their ways because someone ridicules them in public. Law enforcement will tell you that cruelty to animals is a precursor to violence toward people. Be careful, and it certainly doesn’t help the horse, especially if the abuser takes their anger toward you out on their horse. Then you feel even worse. I know.

The truth is that there is no shortage of ugliness in the horse world these days. It’s so common that it takes no special skill to point it out.

That said, if you see it in competition, file a complaint with the organizers. Call the authorities if you see abuse locally. Then follow through and ask for an update on the outcome, or plan to attend the trial. Form a group of like-minded people and get involved in local politics. I seriously believe that if more of us complained less on social media and more to the powers that be, things would change for horses. In other words, it’s common sense; you have a voice. If you feel overwhelmed at the cruelty, take your power back. Put your love into action and advocate.

Mostly, I think people are asking in a more personal way. How can we deal with our own emotional response to what we see? They say it breaks their heart to think of horses being abused. That they love horses, and it hurts too much.  It’s a thing called compassion fatigue.

Take an internal survey. Do you languish in the pain? Do you hurt yourself by ruminating on dark topics? Do you believe negative emotions stronger than positive ones? Because you are literally voting with your heart and mind. By passively lingering in those hurtful thoughts, you unintentionally give them power. How you can tell is it feels like slow-release poison.

The sad truth is our tears don’t help.

Positive thought isn’t just head-in-the-sand foolishness. It’s real science; a natural law. The thing we put our attention on is the thing that grows. There is a real power in affirmation.

When friends suggest to you that you need to show your horse who’s boss, take a breath. Smile and say thank you. If it’s hard, let a sideways glint come to your eye, so they wonder if you’re crazy. Crazy makes people nervous.

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” – Herm Albright.

Horse abuse is painful but we don’t need to fuel that fire. It’s just the easiest thing to get cynical. I might have been born that way, but the more I travel, the more I meet great horsepeople who care deeply about horse welfare. People whose passion burns hot for learning and growing and doing better. Sometimes people tell me that I’m preaching to the choir like it’s a bad thing. It looks to me like the choir of people who care about horses is growing by the minute and getting more vocal. If you feel outnumbered and begin to lose hope in the horse world, remember that it belongs to us. Riders against bullies, unite!

And on a bad day, instead of feeling sorry for abused rescue horses, be inspired. Let your scars heal. Let your heart be as strong as theirs.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

78 comments

  1. Thank you for this gentle yet strong voice in the woods. I especially like the crazy glint of the eye & sideways smile to know it alls. For positivity I use as my mantra, “you cannot save them all, you can save some of them, you can help THIS ONE” (and this applies to all species of animals in my orbit. Thank you always for your insightful writing.

  2. Thanks for writing this, Anna. I liked the part about contacting the organization and not the particular rider or riders when we witness animal abuse. Too often, we try talking to the rider/riders and are met with criticism and/or unpleasantness.

  3. I feel like it’s easy to point out physical abuse, but much, much harder to tactfully tell someone that their horse’s behavior issues stem from their inconsistent, confusing cues. I can see it happening, I can see the exact moment the horse comes apart and what caused it, but because I’ve only been riding for just over 4 years, “what do I know?”. There’s rider ego at play, there, for sure. I try very hard to be a quiet, respectful partner to my horse, and it irritates me to no end when loud, inconsistent riders use force to fix a problem they caused.

    • The problem is, there are many people – supposedly experienced horse people – that haven’t learned how to read a horse’s behavior! So what if its only been 4 years? Its the clear eyed view that is important, not time spent. Your horse is lucky!

    • If that abusive rider pointed out your shortcomings would you listen and change? No. Whether you ask or I ask, they will be defensive because they have been taught that method. You can’t talk them out of it, just like they can’t talk you out of your methods unless they are looking to change. So, with kindness, I suggest you release letting it “irritate me to no end” because your horse will feel that anxiety. For me, I do better focusing on positive thoughts. Of course, it hurts me but I choose to belligerently stay positive. About only riding for 4 years, I’m so glad that you got a positive start in riding. The person you are watching got started riding that cruel way. There’s a good chance she thinks you are damaging your horse. Keep breathing, as my mentor used to always say, “Ride your own horse.” any anxiety you feel, even about even the weather for example, translates to your horse. If it continues to bother you, I suggest moving your horse to another facility. Thank you for caring about horses.

      • I’ve just chosen to not ride at the same time anymore. I know I can’t change them, I can only change how I react. I don’t usually even pay attention to someone else’s riding, as long as it doesn’t impact me, but in this case my own horse noticed the situation before I did. He was quite honest about his unwillingness to go anywhere near that pair, and it took me longer to figure out that it was more than just a strange horse.

  4. Thank you Anna for the great advice. Being a horse owner for over 40 years I’ve witnessed too much but you give some great advice for what to do to have a voice. I have always tried to read my horses so that we have that loving understanding bond, and am thankful that others at my stables are like minded. It’s great when you can find a place to share and enjoy our passion! ❤

  5. Worse I see this in all animals that are forced into contact with humans. Dogs, cats, birds, every pet, every zoo animal. Compassionate fatigue, great. Yes, I have it, and no I’m not even fun to myself most of the time any more. But if I asked my friends, they might say I never have been ;( My younger horse is my worst/best critic. It’s taken him years to convey the message. My hearing loss has made ‘his voice’ louder recently, he is simply a reflection of me.

    • It isn’t about being perfect; I certainly am not. It’s about caring enough to figure it out. Thank you, Ellen… in the end not too much of a “hearing loss.” 😉

  6. One of the many reasons I left the first barn I boarded my horse at was the cruel training and riding methods I witnessed over and over. I couldn’t ride without cringing. And of course, my horse sensed the tension and fear from the horses. One day a “professional trainer” and her working student were chasing a young horse on the lunge with a plastic bag tied to the end of the whip to “make” him canter. I stopped and dismounted. She commented on how spooky my horse was. Seriously wasn’t that the point of her tactic? Elicit the 4-year old’s flight response? And another horse in the arena wasn’t supposed to react to a stablemate’s fear. I had a private chat with the horse’s owner. Her response was that he HAD to canter, like it or not. Um, maybe a green 4-year-old isn’t physically ready to canter. That’s just one example. The barn owner told me to mind my business or she’d turn my horse loose on a nearby highway. I found a great place and moved him under the cover of darkness.

    • No shortage of horror stories, I agree. And we all see them. I hope this story dies here today, and that the story of your new barn becomes the one we all tell. Thanks, Lisa. I’m happy for you and your horse.

  7. You are so right – it really is painful – I am a Tellington Touch practitioner and I have been advised to lead by example – try not to ever criticize the client/trainer/friend but simply show them the better kinder way that TTouch offers….I do my best to spread the good word..lot’s of work left for all of us…

  8. This is great! Sadly I’ve found horse people have very strong opinions on everything horse related! From feeding to training and they are always right! I do my best to ensure my horse is treated well. I love to spoil him in some ways to make up for his rough start in life racing 62 times and even with pins in his leg!

    I will always be his voice! The best thing we can do is lead by example and let the results speak for themselves. People can choose to follow or not. For the horses sake I do pray for a kinder and gentler hand!

  9. As usual, you articulate something so important that so many of us have experienced. About preaching to the choir, choirs need conductors in order to reach their best and most harmonious potential. You do a great job in that role.

    • I’m flattered, thank you. Truly, I meet so many other conductors of small choirs… we need to have one of those choir sing-offs they have in movies. 🙂 The moon would glow for that! Thanks Tracey.

  10. After reading this, I told my husband, “This woman must live inside my brain or something, everything she articulates is exactly how my eyeballs see it and my heart feels it.” Right on. Nails it every time. So re-affirming. Thank you again.

  11. Positivity is the only way to truly move the needle. It’s hardest to break my own habits so that’s where I put the majority of my attention.

  12. Just, THANK YOU, ….. from all the horses lives we can touch in a more caring and understanding way 🙂 . Breaks my heart to see what some horses are screaming to their owners and they have no idea 😦 one day , with sowing a seed here and there, others will notice.

  13. At times I really wonder which Arch-angel you are channeling, or maybe it could be St. Francis of Assisi ??…..such wisdom and such practical common sense as well! Again.Thank you.

  14. great read again Anna, so great to meet you on Thursday I seriously hope you visit South Australia again soon. I led my standard bred from behind yesterday, she was great, slowly, slowly and the biggest thing was we had no tongue chewing for the rest of the day!

  15. Love it Anna. Such awesome timing. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into this sort of thing this week so your timing couldn’t have been better. You have such an amazing way with words and seem to know exactly what and when to say it. Very powerful, thankyou.

  16. I love this
    So many others have said it better, but it really just comes down to this – I am so glad to have discovered your writing, as you say and demonstrate what I feel and what I want for and with my horse. I’m wishing I could express it better, but thank you.

  17. Today I’ve been watching “elite”show hacks compete. Following on from your clinic the contrast couldn’t be greater. It was rare to see a rider pat their horse after a comp workout and even rarer to see a semi happy horse. Sigh…
    I’m so appalled by it all. Those “Reject rescue trotters” are having a better life than these pampered show horses. I feel a strong post coming soon on my blog.
    And yes, it was wonderful to finally meet you Anna!☺

  18. Beautifully said, Anna! I keep trying to tell others that we cannot beat bullies by becoming bullies ourselves. That only turns off those who might be seeking a better answer. Offering a sanctuary for others who are disturbed by what they see, as you do here, provides a way for us to come together and grow the numbers of the chorus, and hopefully gain the strength to change the direction things have taken. Thank you for being one of my release valves from those moments you described so painfully well.

  19. Ahhh a familiar story for sure. I do care enough to fix it/me..to not listen to some folks in the driving community..but to listen to my little anxious fearful driving pony. We learn at his pace. He is an amazing teacher. He is my friend. So good to see the tide turning. =-)

  20. I am so deeply grateful that I was blessed enough to have my early riding experiences with Rudd. The lessons he taught applied to the horses, yet they also applied to all other animals and people too. He was adamant that if you felt it necessary to bully or force your will upon a horse (or other life of any kind) it was you that was in need of help. He always reminded us that horses are not stupid, they managed to survive in many different places on the planet. They have served humanity for thousands of years and have not necessarily benefited from their association with us. I have watched the staggering difference between a horse that is afraid of the rider and one that is in harmony. You’re a great gift and blessing to horses, Anna. A calm, sane, loving voice for horses and everything else.

  21. I’m that person who needed reassurance for being a wimp and getting off and walking with my horse when it felt like my horse was getting too wound up and my friends just wanted me to sort him out! Well, a couple of days ago we were following a 4-wheeler down a steep dirt track. When the 4-wheeler braked, the wheels on the gravel made strange and scarey noises. I got off and walked. The next time it happened I was in a good position to see his face, and I will never forget it. He was bewildered and very scared. Like a child who just wanted to hide behind his mother and hold her hand. And suddenly I was remembering what you told us about the horse having confidence in us when we were on the ground, but once we were on his back, it wasn’t quite the same. Not yet. Just wanted you to know I appreciated what I learned from you that day, and what I learned from HIM following that bike down that track reinforced the lesson big time. Have to give him credit. He was a scared youngster, but he was trying real hard to stay with me and get it right. Thanks Anna.

    • Oh, this makes me happy, Phyllis. You were able to read his calming signals and help him. It isn’t about on the ground or in the saddle… it’s about giving him confidence. And forgive me for reminding you, but you are no spring chicken. I want both of you around, working on being partners and enjoying nature, even with unnatural 4 wheelers skidding around. Love it, Phyllis. Thank you for sharing this.

    • I needed to read this post! I too have been made to feel that if l get off and lead my mare instead of riding her through the “scary” thing that “she has my number” and “I’m rewarding her for being naughty”

  22. It’s a curious thing when people are so focused on others depending on which extreme of the spectrum they have positioned themselves.

  23. It is so wonderful to read the comments and realize that there is a really big group of horse owners who have opened their minds and learned new ways of being with horses. Thank you for giving us a place to see that.

  24. This is wonderful. I often lament that I began riding after 40, but it’s given me a free pass to be whatever kind of rider I choose to be- and that’s compassionate, slow, and intuitive. I started with a “trainer” who thought that frightening me and my horse was the way to get the job done. I knew that wasn’t sustainable for me- it’s just not my personality and the horse saw right through it. I then found a teacher who had a lot of compassion for the horse, for me, and had nothing to prove and nowhere to go fast. Both my horse and I relaxed and started getting somewhere. Thanks again for your insight!

    >

  25. Years ago I got off my young gelding when he was scared and we walked by whatever it was he was nervous about. I heard (to no end) the kinds of comments echoed here, and that he would NEVER learn go by anything scary.
    The following year I was riding with the same group of riders, it was fall and the corn along the trail we were riding on was blowing and whistling in the wind. All of a sudden I realized I was riding alone as none of the other horses would approach the scary corn field, but my boy was happily and securely marching along. I had to bite my tongue not to say anything to those folks as I stopped my boy and waited for them to try and get their horses along to catch up to us, but I couldn’t stop my smile!
    Thanks again for a problem that is too frequent in the world all animals have to share with us, sad it is just as bad for some people. Hope is in the future!

  26. Such articulate wisdom, Anna. I so agree with your final words about letting your heart be as strong as the hearts of those who are rescued. I have only owned rescues; and though I take into consideration their past when trying to figure out the best approach in working with them, I focus on kindness, respect, and the here and now. I have been lucky, because their strong hearts have rewarded me with phenomenal results.
    AND….Herm Albright’s quote may well become my mantra!

  27. This article has really resonated with me. I’ve read and pondered over it a lot since you wrote it. Yes at one time I was in the “show them who is boss” camp, but my eyes have been opened to the pure awesome beauty of these sensitive and often misunderstood souls. And now I can’t unsee what I’ve seen! It is hard not to speak out when you are witness to another souls suffering. I have to remember I too was once on that oblivious path and try to lead by example.

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