The Middle Path: Peaceful Persistence

I had two conversations recently; one a spellbinding conversation with a brilliant and beautiful young mare. The other conversation involved a group of riders and we were really enjoying descriptive word choice. My two favorite kinds of conversation, here goes.

The mare is very young, not started under saddle, and her human is doing a fine job with her. They do obstacles in hand, hike a bit, have age-appropriate ground manners. Her handler had asked for some advice about the process going forward.

We’d been talking about one of my favorite exercises, leading from behind. It’s standing back by the horse’s flank, well behind the drive-line, and about four feet to the side. In other words, well out of the horse’s space. Once the horse is comfortable moving forward in this position, you can do obstacles, but rather than leading her, you send her from behind. Or more literally, the horse does obstacles in autonomy, volunteering, and out in front like ground driving. The handler walks along, makes suggestions, and cheers.

I asked if I might have her horse’s rope. I’m aware that I’m asking for a privilege. I’ve heard all the trainer horror stories, too. But she trusts her mare to me and I say thank you.

The mare is beautiful and she is quite aware of it. Period. Can I take a moment here and say that if you work with a beautiful mare, it might be more productive to acknowledge your own beauty rather than hers? She already knows, and you will need all your confidence to keep up with her. Says this gray mare with chronic lameness.

We did a few obstacles but she let me know with some sour ears that I was uninteresting. That’s fair.

I thought she was answering by rote, meaning the mechanical or habitual repetition of something. You say sit and the dog sits. Yawn. Pretty dull conversation if that’s all you do.

The mare had been doing the obstacles in the most obvious way. Not only that, she thought repetition is for dolts. Or that humans might be very slow learners. A conversation by rote is beyond boring. And if we just repeat the obstacle the same way each time, then we deserve a sour ear. Any mare will tell you that.

Time to get creative. I asked her to walk on from behind. There was a pair of arches, and I sent her under. But now I wanted to send her between them. It was wide enough for her but not wide enough for both of us side by side. I sent her out on an arc, in front of me, and she stopped at that narrow spot between the arches.

She doesn’t think she can do it. I ask her to hold her own self up.

She is standing right there; she knows what I want. She’s smart; she doesn’t need me to “train” her. She needs confidence.

I let her know when she’s getting warmer. I’m positioned totally back from her head, she’s facing the narrow space between the arches, telling me it might be impossible, and I am happy. I can tell she’s thinking, so I exhale. Good.

This is how obstacles work: She could be standing facing anything: a bridge, a pedestal, or a trailer. (Float to my new friends.) It’s all the same; I get to say what we do, and she gets to say when. Partnership.

I coax her to figure it out. I’m not going to do it for her and I’m not going to bully her. I wait. That means I’ve become interesting and mysterious.

I let her know she’s on the right path. Good girl. I ignore the rest and I breathe. We’re having a conversation. She tries to distract me by suggesting there might be a kangaroo in the bushes. I usually fall for that but not this time. I tell her she’s brave with a big inhale.

Standing to her left, my left hand is on a long lead, toward the clip at her chin and my right hand is near the end of the rope. I might cue her with it, but if I do, it must be so quiet that she takes only one step. I only want small efforts. If she gets over-cued anxious, things will take longer, and she’s paying attention. No reason to escalate. She isn’t refusing; just trying to figure out how to do it. We’re both intelligent people. We whisper and breathe.

Her sour ears have been gone for the last five minutes and I care less about the obstacle and more about her keen mind. We are focused, enjoying each other.

Would you have upped your aids by now? Circled her or disengaged her? Would you have distracted her from her task or she you? Hold steady; there’s time.

Her calming signals are small, with less anxiety than before. She blinks slowly with a large soft eye. She gives me a little lick and chew, and she’s almost ready. Dialing my energy to balance hers. I ask her to move a bit, and then, with no fanfare, she walks through. Onlookers sigh and give her a quiet golf-clap and the young mare is positively glowing with pride.

Can we use positive energy to encourage a horse to push her boundaries, in a good way? Can we have the confidence in her to give her time to figure it out? In the saddle, as well as on the ground? And when she volunteers, let’s celebrate her new-found courage. Confidence is the most important gift we can give our horses, regardless of our riding discipline.

Training rules: You may only say yes to the horse and to yourself. No punishment, just yes. This part is harder than it sounds. Every time you see any calming signal, you listen and go slower or stop. You may not escalate. Keep a friendly tone. Breathe. Acknowledge every tiny try.

Peaceful Persistence:
    Not aggressive.
    Not conceding. 
   Not emotional. 


We need to pick up our mental game. It’s crazy the way we prattle on about how sensitive our horses are, geniuses at reading our minds, and totally capable of learning anything but then dumb down the training process to learned helplessness, bullying, and answers by rote. It would make my ears go sour, too.


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. 


70 thoughts on “The Middle Path: Peaceful Persistence

  1. Sandy

    This was an absolutely brilliant description of how a horse training conversation should go! I have had a few magic moments like this with my horse and now, with your perfect word choice, I really get what is actually going on when training goes well and how understanding the “confidence” piece is so key!! Thank you for your insight and terrific sense of humor!

  2. Dana Esbensen

    “Sour ears!” My diva mare is the queen of sour ears. “Because I don’t want to and I know you can’t make me do this thing that I don’t feel like doing.” So we have learned to engage in long moments of slow, deep breaths, me thinking these days of how would Anna do this. I want to give this mare all opportunities to figure things out, she has not failed me, in spite of being a rescue 16 years ago from a very dark place (I don’t even want to know). She is the Horse of My Heart. Thank you, always.

  3. Celeste

    As always, your words create the scene you described in my mind, but I really do wish I could have seen this exercise in patience. Life has been far too hurried for me lately and I know I need to spend more time carving out the time to practice this kind of conversation with my horse. Thank you for the reminder. I really love this and I know I needed it.

    1. Celeste, I think the most important thing I do in clinics is actually demonstrate what patience looks like. Most of us think we are going slow enough… but horses would disagree. The funny thing is, with this foundation, things can go really fast later. Thanks, Celeste

  4. joepote01

    Oh, I love your description of working with a young horse, Anna!

    I often struggle (as I know others do) in trying to figure out when to wait and when to increase pressure. In this post you’ve described your thought process through each step.

    Here’s my big take-away: “I get to say what we do, and she gets to say when. Partnership.”


    Thank you, so much! 🙂

  5. Stacy

    Boy did I need to read this today as I’m taking my burro to the Horse Expo tomorrow to do an obstacle course. Peaceful persistence will definitely be needed, especially with a burro!

  6. Yes! I had the same takeaway as Joe, with the What and When Partnership.

    Love that.

    I love that a thinking mare will be cautious about fitting through a tight space cause I can’t tell you how many times Dodger has barged through his stall doorway, and managed to denude a hip bone on the way in/out. I would’ve guessed it was an oblivious gelding thing, but my mini gelding uses this apparent oblivion to mess with him out in the pasture. I think the mini gives him the what, when and how long just for his own amusement. Dodger falls for it every time…

    1. He feels hurried, for whatever reason, and it’s anxiety. Dodger tries too hard… Sweet boys like this are fodder for minis. At least, in my herd, whose mini makes up for his size with intelligence. Thanks, Michelle

  7. Lynn Friendly

    As a new-ish owner of a gorgeous Morgan mare, I really enjoyed this blog. And I am grayer and lamer than you.

    1. My congrats on the mare. Only feel a little ‘sorry’ for you, 🙂 , do your best to keep up. Thank you, Lynn, and give her a pat from me. If she’s in the mood, obviously.

  8. Tracey Sands

    This is wonderful and timely, especially because I have my own intelligent and beautiful young mare. Thank you!

  9. Therese Marumoto

    Very helpful to go through your thinking process in response to the horse’s tiny reactions. I have done this in the past and it works. But I forget to always do it and get impatient. Good reminder for me!

  10. Absolutely beautiful! And so very encouraging, too!

    I also work with a relatively young mare (6 is barely an adult for an Icelandic), and she is one of the quickest thinkers I’ve ever known. Really taught me a thing or two about thinking on my feet. Alas, it’s exactly that quickness and a magnificent courage that frightens her owner, so I’m all but her primary caretaker now.

    I’ll definitely incorporate the “I get to say what we do, and she gets to say when” part! We’ve been doing it instinctively, sometimes (now that I think back, those times were the most smooth for both of us…).
    But being aware of it will help, I think, to counter my own tendency to get too enthusiastic and asking too much too fast. Because she gives so bravely, and I get caught up in it. Daft human 😛

    1. Young ones are the hardest to go slow with; they get enthusiastic, too! For the record, I consider a horse who is 8 a young horse and mentoring patience is about all that matters for them. Thanks, Shiarrael.

  11. Pat Weiss

    There is so much fantastic stuff in this I am going to have to read it several times..! I really love the way you bring across (time and time again)the real essence of how our interactions with horses should be. It makes so much sense, but at the same time takes so much self control (and sometimes courage!) to put it into practice. Reading your blog is very supportive and I can only say thank you for taking so much time effort to help us all “out here”. Please don’t stop!

  12. eremophila

    It’s wonderful to relive this lesson -I feel so lucky to have witnessed it. Much to chew over still, giving me further insight to my passed mare, who I always say was my greatest teacher.

    1. I’m still learning from the ones passed on myself, Annie. I really treasured this interchange, she taught the clinic for me, and in a much shorter time.

  13. Karen Koval

    I was one of the privileged few who gave a sigh and quiet golf clap Anna. So blessed to have witnessed this conversation and learn the art of patience. Something that has and will continue to be a true challenge for me but with a mindful breath, whilst offering respectful space, my horses tell me I’m improving Anna so to you we send our heartiest of thankyou’s 🤗 Now where are those obstacles! This is WHAT we’re doing WHEN you are ready. Love it! xx

  14. Sarah

    I was fortunate enough to witness this conversation at a time when my buddy and I are struggling to communicate over floating. Feeling the need to go slow and wait for the right way to proceed, I now feel I have far better insight and tools to read him.

    I was thoroughly absorbed in your words and way with horses for the full 10 hours. Thank you so much for coming and sharing with us.

  15. Julie Bradbury

    Wow Anna, seriously wow…love reading your blogs but for me, this one takes it to a whole new level…I am developing a relationship with the most beautiful of souls ..a black pearl…and this is definitely her expectation of me…our conversations grow ever more complex, intricate, sophisticated… and quieter. She expects me to become the best version of myself in all of our transactions …it’s both humbling and exhilarating at the same time. You’ll get to meet her in June, I’m so looking forward to meeting you too.

  16. Martha McCoy

    Wow Anna – what an inspiring description of your exchange with the young mare. I may have been holding my breath when I read the part where she was just on the verge of passing between the arches and I was definitely leaning into the computer screen (which I try not to do). When she succeeded I felt a lump in my throat and an urge to cheer (I mean golf clap). I’ll be licking and chewing on this one for a while and taking everything I can to my own exchanges with the horses. Thank you.

  17. Annette

    Brilliant! I could visualize every moment! I could see both my boys in that very situation in the past – both have been bullied to get the ‘task’ done… in response – 1 shut down and the other came un-glued …. I am so grateful to have found a better way to be with my horses…. Thank you Anna 🙂

    1. Agreed, and so many horses like yours. Young mares like this one… it’s humbling to be with her because she is that sort of brilliant that could easily come apart in the wrong hands and her strong innocence is breath taking… Give your boys a scratch; I don’t worry for them now. Thanks, Annette.

  18. Oh wow Anna, this is powerful, and very helpful. Thank you for the encouragement, giving is al the confidence in ourselves to just keep listening and slowing down or stopping where needed.

  19. Laura

    “Can we have confidence in her to figure it out”? Yes patience, and I ask “Can we have confidence in Ourselves to give her a chance to figure it out”? OTTBs many times over have shown me the value of waiting. The young filly TB/welsh I have right now constantly rewards me for waiting…… she shows me how to approach obstacles. I am so blessed.

  20. Lory

    Your blog is a Sunday morning gift. Thanks Anna. “Can you have confidence in her to give her the time to figure it out”? I read this over and over because it resonated so deeply with me but the “her” was me. When my horse doesn’t do something I ask for, I immediately thing my cues are off and switch them up a bit. This was a good reminder for me to just sit and breathe. I’m going to keep trying to get you to CA!!!

  21. Deb Long

    Well..what all those above me said Anna. And for me it’s another head flicked “ohhhhh” moment! Perfect timing as well. We also have an on the ground obstacle course coming up in April and this will be soo helpful . Can’t thank you enough for sharing with us. =-)

  22. Tracey Sands

    As I commented above, this essay reminded me very strongly of my own young mare, who is three this year. Although we’ve spent a lot of time together (she was only a few months old when I bought her), we’ve really done more playing than real work, other than on things like leading and basic handling. Mostly, I’ve focused on avoiding coercion and encouraging her to look and think (which she is already inclined to do on her own). I hope you don’t mind my telling a brief story about her, not so much as a response to your essay per se, but because I think many people who enjoy your work share my (and your) admiration for the intelligence and wisdom of horses. The same day I read the essay, I had turned my filly out to play in a large, hilly paddock at our boarding barn. There was a large muck bucket in the paddock, with a cracked bottom. I should have pulled it out, but didn’t. My gelding was in the next paddock over, and the two did quite a bit of running and playing, while I chatted with a friend perhaps 20 yards away. All of a sudden, I looked up and saw that the filly had managed to put her front foot through the bottom of the muck bucket, and was now wearing it like an oversized anklet, with a look of confusion on her face, but no panic. I called to her that it would be okay and got over to her as fast as I calmly could. She clomped around a bit — again, no panic –, and by the time I got to her, she had managed to get the bucket off, and then stood calmly and happily while I checked her legs (thankfully unscathed) and removed the bucket from the paddock. I don’t think she so much as breathed hard. Mostly, I’m sharing this because I feel that my girl’s intelligence and good sense deserve to be recognised. The only think I can really take credit for (aside from the stupidity of leaving that muck bucket in the paddock) is that I’ve made it a point never to undermine her confidence, so she was able to use all her inborn capacity to deal with a strange situation. As much as a lot of traditional horsemanship suggests that horses can be “too smart for their own good,” I think it’s clear if we pay attention that the very best way to work with horses is to encourage them to develop their own capacity to solve problems, just as you did with the young mare you describe. Thanks again for your essay, and also for letting me brag a bit about my brilliant girl!

    1. Wonderful comment, Tracey. We train “learned helplessness” when we fix every challenge. Smart YOU for giving her the chance to figure it out. Thanks.

  23. Michelle Ruffin-Stein

    Wonderful post. I truly appreciate your detailed description of the actions involved from you and the young mare. Your approach is absolutely brilliant. I have three rescued Off-Track Thoroughbreds two are both ten years of age and the other just turned twenty-four. I have a handsome thirty-three year old Pinto gelding and a beautiful Twenty-three year old Saddlebred mare whom suffers from Equine Cushings. As for the two ten year old geldings, I work with a fantastic trainer who trains them but I have a fear of riding so I do not ride very often, though I desperately wish that I could somehow find the courage…

    1. First and always, thank you from your horses… giving elders a home is angel’s work, and the younger ones, just as grateful. I understand your desire to ride, but at the same time, you do something more selfless… and I applaud that. As for riding, there’s plenty of time. Keep breathing, maybe ask your trainer for some groundwork exercises. Everything changes in time. Thanks, Michelle.

  24. Laurie

    Well Anna, I’m clearly behind on reading your blog, but so glad that I didn’t miss this one. I look forward to try leading from behind, and it sounds very challenging, but I predict that my little Arabian will show me the way. Thank you for your wisdom and commitment!

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