Pretending to Be a Horse

There was a time, while I was in junior high school, that I rode my horse on the road. Lots of us did, living on mostly small acreage, just past the city limit. I rode down to the grade school where we raced sometimes. Or over at the holly farm, up and down the rows. It was almost like a maze.

When I was younger I was fearless because nothing bad had happened. Yet.

There were pastures we’d walk by and if the horses ran up to the fence, my horse got jittery. He’d bounce around on the pavement tossing his head. This might be when I stopped breathing. A hoof would slide out and I’d freeze to a dead pull. The more I wanted him to stand still, the more he was afraid. Or I was, it was hard to tell who started it. I thought if I could keep him from seeing the horses running up, we’d be fine. I kept a tight straight-ahead hold on the reins, and when his neck got stiff, I thought that was good. He couldn’t see them that way.

I don’t consider this a high point in equine understanding.

Now is a good time to state for the record that horse’s range of vision is a large arc covering both flanks, almost a full circle. It’s simpler to state what they can’t see: Directly in front of their forehead and directly behind their tail. In other words, he saw the horses coming toward his side from a great distance. I was the one with bad peripheral vision, but I did have the big shank bit that came with him and an old saddle.

So, that’s when he started bolting.

I was a kid who loved my horse and was scared half to death most of the time. The disagreement had to do with me thinking he should pay attention to me. Just me. And him constantly ignoring me. Sure, his excuse was that he needed awareness of his surroundings, being a prey animal, whether I was on his back or not. He claimed it was a matter of life and death. I thought he should just trust me.

He didn’t.

In hindsight, I was being quite mature. Meaning lots of adults think a horse should pay attention to them on general principle. Perhaps because we think we’re the master species. Perhaps because that’s what happens most days when we put the key in the truck ignition. The world is a very logical place, but human logic and horse logic are two very different things. This is the place things start to come apart.

Is your horse distracted?

No. It’s impossible for your horse to be distracted. He lives in the world of his immediate senses. His keen eyesight, his acute hearing ability, and his perceptive sense of smell; each of his senses is unimaginably better than ours.  Humans use intellectual thoughts replace physical awareness. It’s why we get along so well with cell phones but it makes us tenderfoots in the real world. The disconnect doesn’t mean your horse is ignoring you. Your horse is the opposite of distracted. He’s hyper-focused.

Should your horse to totally focus on you?

Not fair to ask. First, as flight animals, they must always be aware of their surroundings. Instinct does tell them it’s life or death. There are brief exceptions, like if you can manage to keep your horse more frightened of you than the natural world through intimidation, then they will focus on you. But not in a good way.

Sometimes when we want a horse to focus, we scare them when we don’t know it. If the desire to hold their attention comes packaged in anxiety, if it comes with fear or anger or any other negative thought, our body screams anxiety directly to the horse, even if our mind thinks it’s giving a different cue. Our core tightens and our legs grab on. We brace our arms and grab the reins and worst of all, it all happens as quickly as a flinch. Our brain might think we gave a halt cue, but our body gave the OMG-we’re-all-gonna-die cue. Your horse picks the loudest cue.

A huge part of the problem we have around horses is a lack of awareness of our own physical reality.  Can you feel what your left hand is doing? Can you tell if your calf muscles are tense? Have your lips pulled into a straight hard-line like your mother’s used to? Has either of you taken a breath lately?

Your focus has switched from your ride to your impending doom.

About now the idea of leadership enters the scene. As the leader, you might feel your horse doesn’t respect your cues. For example, shouldn’t he release to the death grip you have on his rein? (No really, it’s a death grip, you just haven’t noticed.) Your anxiety goes up more, he isn’t listening. Your horse’s anxiety goes up more, it’s metal-on-bone pain. You think you have no control, right before the bolting starts. Your horse thinks he’ll die from your heart-stopping control.

“NO!” isn’t actually a cue your horse can take.

Just stop. I wouldn’t mind if you dismounted right about here. If you’re digging a hole with your horse, at this point, it would be a win to just stop digging. Become aware for a moment, beyond your anxiety. Are you frustrated? Are your feelings hurt, for all the love you have for this horse, that he doesn’t listen to you? Why does he blow you off? The more you ask, the worse he is. Have you taken a breath yet?

He absolutely listened to you. 

About now, it dawns on you that it’s true. He did take every lousy cue you gave him. It’s amazing the enlightenment that comes with breathing. Last week, I wrote about a bubble. It’s a safe place for you and your horse where breathing happens with a life-affirming regularity. It’s a place where leadership means safety and peace, where we abide in the present moment. The next series of blogs will be an experiential guide to building a bubble for you and your horse.

Now for the fun part; we’ll build the bubble by pretending to be horses.

….
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. 

41 comments

  1. You have such a talent for pointing out our personal human short-comings without triggering our very human internal defense mechanisms. You get my brain to accept, apply to myself and then search inside for improvement without the roadblock that justification & guilt create. The resulting clarity is humbling.
    Oh my poor horses! That they must suffer the fools…

  2. Anna, whenever I see an email saying you have posted, it’s the first thing I choose to open. It is always an amazing photo or point of view and occasionally I comment. But have I ever just said, “Thank you, so very much!”
    I know this takes time, energy and a lot of thought from an exhausting schedule. But, “Thank you, so very much!”
    One more little thing. You said you wrote about the bubble last week. I did not see that but I do look forward to more.
    Maureen
    Thanks from the horses, too.

    • Thank you, it’s a labor of love but that doesn’t mean it would be the same without readers. Thanks for doing your part, too. (If you click on the word Bubble it’s linked, or it’s last friday’s blog, Reframing Competition as Relationship) Thanks again.

  3. Thank you, Anna, This is excellent! It’s so hard to go from understanding it intellectually to applying it when adrenalin is pumping and fear has become a monster. I am better, though, at getting off when there’s life threatening trouble. That’s when I remember to breath, when I’m standing on the ground feeling a bit safer! Looking forward to your blog series.

  4. This whole post takes me back! The chances I took with my life AND my old mare’s life when I was a kid? Thinking back – it boggles the mind. How I never got hurt AND did not have a clue that this was a possibility – makes me thankful someone was watching over me! No helmet – galloping down the street in the small town where I lived – going up thru the woods & over hills with no one knowing where we were.
    Amazing that I lived thru it and even more that my mare did.
    Had a much safer experience in my 50s when I got back into horses. Have to say though, just as much enjoyment. Thinking back, its a miracle I made it to 80!

  5. I’m thinking that pretending to be a horse is a tad bit more involved than just “galloping” around and producing whinny sounds?! LOL
    Love the article; looking forward to your process!

  6. Oh, this was so perfectly worded and described! I didn’t get my first horse until I was 53; now, almost 73, I have started learning to relax. My horse likes it!

  7. Thank you once again for another great blog! I am looking forward to pretending to be a horse with you and your readers.

    • I remember reading about Sheila Varian years ago – she was showing in an open cutting horse class with one of her Arabians, I believe the ONLY Arabian in the class. I have no idea if there was a video at that time – did see a picture. Her horse went down on his knees while turning the cow, jumped back up & WON the class! This picture was in one of the older horse magazines.
      Watching the video of the stallion was impressive. The other videos made of Sheila Varian’s clinics only a few years before she died were as impressive.

      • Actually, not an open cutting horse class – but much more impressive! She was one of a kind.

        She trained and rode Ronteza (*Witez II x Ronna, by Faronek), her second Arabian mare, to the 1961 Reined Cow Horse Championship at San Francisco’s Cow Palace – defeating 50 other horses, of breeds more familiar to the working western scene. Varian was the first amateur, the first woman, and Ronteza the first Arabian, to accomplish a feat that not only demanded considerable skill, but had been the unchallenged province of cowboys and their Quarter Horses.

  8. Thank you for this. I dont know when I reached this point with my OTTB. But it was pretty early on in our partnership. Since the first summer together was spent walking the infield of the training track where I boarded. He was “reactive” I was nervous. I had not owned an OTTB before. Ridden well trained TB’s, yes. But not a OTTB. Trained a much smaller mare when I was younger. But thats it. I was younger. There was no “fear”
    Now my old boy will follow me anywhere. Walk through and around and over anything I ask. I know that when the “trainer” at my barn watches he and I, she’s jealous of the relationship I have with my horse. But it was 14 years in the making. I listened. I took long breathes on those long walks. He listened, he took long breathes as well. We trust each other.

    Now I am looking at a paint that was just moved into the barn. He’s a “rescue” of unknown origin. He’s thin. He’s low man in the herd of 3 he is part of. But he’s smart. I can see that he WANTS someone to guide him. Someone to trust again. So I am trying to decide if I can do that for him. Be that person for him. Breathe with him. In the end, if I move forward with him now… he will be what helps me keep breathing when my OTTBs time with me here is through. So maybe it’ll be another case of saving each other.

    • Old friends are the best. So, I’ll say this, not that it’s any of my business. You are your old boys legacy. You are what he has to pass on, so yes. Think about paying it forward to, oh, I don’t know, some stray paint maybe. Wonderful comment, thank you.

  9. As usual Anna you’ve made a bullseye. I’m getting better and better at reading horse cues, but I’m afraid I need a “Human Cues for Dummies” course for myself. On the rare occasion when I realize that I have ceased to draw breath, and make adjustments accordingly, we both return to a partnership based focus more quickly. I’m just a glutton for punishment in that the pursuits I love most take a lifetime of learning.

  10. I have learned to pay attention when a horse is paying attention, even if I cannot immediately see why. My daughter and I rescued a beagle who’s chain was wrapped around a tree in a small forest. We had been working with one of our horses who would stop and stare. We initially could see nothing. But finally could recognize a tail tip waving against the wind. They see everything, notice everything. Silly horses!
    This morning walking to the barn, I glanced down the hill only to see what I thought was a person. Instant fear freeze. We live in a remote area, extra people are not just around. And then I realized “New bluebird house on pole” not person. I relaxed, but thought that must be what it is like for a horse, that flash of terror, the freeze before flight. It is a wonder they ever listen to us.

    • They might multi-task better than we think. I love the description of seeing the birdhouse. Yes, I think that’s it, and a breath from us would make a huge difference in that visual flinch. Thanks Sandra.

  11. DEAREST Anna, It was my pleasure to have met you and learned from all your wisdom…YOUR compassion for me AT THE TIME OF MY MELTDOWN, will never be forgotten. I hold you in my heart and looking so forward for our paths to CROSS AGAIN…..WHAT I took away from all the you taught me was WAIT……and WAIT….and whisper…and so much more my dear friend !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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