Building the Bubble #5. Just Honor Them

 

Some of us value horses for their physical working ability on ranches, we “use ’em hard.” Decent care, no frills. Some of us think horses were put on the earth to be spiritual healers and therapists; we use them emotionally. Some of us commit to a lifestyle, we call ourselves horsewomen and horsemen, with the accent on the first syllable. We are evolving.

Horse thought balloon: (they’re confusing. they’re confused. about who they are. who I am. some leaders are too hard. some frail, almost invisible. some are all noise. some just crowd me.  some hold fear close, others anger. some have peace. some listen. some accept me. most want to change me. feeling their expectations. anxiety. emotions. good intentions. confusion. loud. shut down or explode. it’s too much busy.  just a horse. always be just a horse

Opinion: I believe with every fiber that horses were created to be a part of the natural world, and like all animals, express their lives in their unique way, for their own reasons. If we manage to learn from them, it’s our luck and not their job. They owe us nothing.

We do owe horses a debt historically. The distance we’ve traveled using of horse-power would have been so much slower on our own feet, with our own muscles. Horses have been a part of the human story for centuries and as civilization has brought benefits to us, domestication has been a challenge for horses.

In the U.K., researchers have recently identified four primary areas of horse welfare issues:

Unresolved stress and/or pain;
Inappropriate nutrition;
Inappropriate stabling/turnout; and
Delayed death (i.e., not euthanizing when appropriate).

I agree with this list; it looks about right. When I ask vets and equine professionals what percentage of horses are sound, the optimistic answer is 20%. Most say lower. Your vet might say he didn’t find anything wrong with your horse, but those are carefully chosen words. The nutrition issues are obesity-related mostly, along with a list of related chronic illnesses. With more urban sprawl, ranches get sold for housing developments. The less grazing and turn out for boarded horses, the more horses live in stalls and runs, for our convenience. And that last one on the list; we struggle talking about it, much less doing it.

Notice the problems are all related to living with humans. Depressing, isn’t it? 

Horses carry more of our baggage than we admit. The weight of our emotions, past and present, our daily stress outside the barn, are as heavy as our physical bodies, whether we’re old cowboys or horse-crazy girls. Horses don’t have a choice but to notice, being prey animals with keen senses. It’s written all over us.

It’s up to us to learn their language, the calming signals that tell us how they feel. After that, it’s up to us to make it better.

Notice the difference between what he thinks and what you want him to think.

When riders ask me about a training issue, my first question is about the horse’s soundness. A change in behavior is usually pain and an unwilling attitude is a dead giveaway. We can’t discipline the pain away, and for a species like us, brought to our knees by a paper cut, you’d think we’d understand.

Consider building 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.

In this series of articles, I’ve described a bubble as a place that we find connection while riding but it’s more than that. It’s the place we live with horses. It’s their safe haven, even more than ours.

Horses need a home as close to natural as possible, rather than trying to fit into ours. For the handful of us who don’t own two thousand acres of forest and meadows, we do the best we can. Horses are social, they need friends. They need to graze, free choice hay even if it’s a dry lot. They need space to move around, take dirt baths, and see the natural world. It means we commit to the constant challenge to do better with their care. It will be ironically inconvenient and expensive to do the natural thing.

We need to let them be horses. No more or less.

Humans tend to define equine relationships by work under saddle, but horses see the whole picture. Sometimes doctoring an injury and changing bandages can do more to bring a horse to you than any training method. And for all the right reasons.

Maybe if we paid more attention to the quality of our own feelings and behaviors, horses could deal with their stress better.

If harsh training can cause injuries and ulcers, then positive training can heal.

Their calming signals are telling us they’re not a threat. Can we let go of our predator ways and listen? Can we raise the quality of conversation with horses beyond punishment, proving we can become trustworthy?

Rather than asking horses to fit into our world, we’ll build the bubble by pretending to be horses ourselves. No, as much as we might try, horses never mistake us for herd members, but we can gain more situational awareness around horses and learn to see the world as they do. We can shift our perspective to caring more about what we give them than what they give us.

Breathe. No, I mean it. Match your breath to his, deep and slow. Clear your mind. That’s the bubble, now make it as big as the barn. Listen to the words you use, be honest about your intention, do you need him to listen or are you offering? Don’t say what he always does, notice who he is today. Be fresh. Now, be the leader that you always wanted. Say thank you. Acknowledgment is all any of us wants.

Train less, “relationship” more.

It takes no special skill to fall in love with horses. Standing next to a horse and feeling their breath is wildly intoxicating thing. Every single time. But don’t confuse that with having some mystical bond. That’s just them being ordinary, everyday horses. We have to work for a true connection, over time and through honest effort.

It’s mucking, doctoring, and laying down our worst instincts and lower selves that earn us a place in the saddle, and the right to share their bubble.

 

This is the last of the series. Recapping:

Pretending to Be a Horse
Building the Bubble #1. Just Notice
Building the Bubble #2. Just Converse
Building the Bubble #3. Just Move
Building the Bubble #4. Just Train Less

 
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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. 

42 comments

  1. 20 per cent…. that’s shuddering stats. I wonder if humans have similar stats, and that in a way accounts for our ignoring the animal’s condition.

      • Sigh….. your post was timely, as today I went to watch a person run lessons. First horse wasn’t going forward at the walk, and at trot was in obvious(to me) discomfort, but was accused of resistance. I thought he was doing the best he could with an unbalanced overweight rider.
        Nothing I saw today left me happy for the horses.

  2. Reblogged this on Barley and I and commented:
    Especially after this week I spend with Equitopia Founder Caroline Hegarty and Dr.Karin Leibbrandt with a small group of very knowledgable people, these words hit right in my heart again.

  3. I really LOVE this series Anna. Not only do we need to learn to be “mindful”, we need to have confidence in practicing it because all around us are people judging.

    I have had a string of medical issues, both me and my animals, such that in the last 10 years I have barely ridden. I may be a bit traumatized by it all but in any case I am very fearful of doing anything that might be painful to my horse. I have been going over them with a fine-toothed comb along with my vet but we all know that medicine is not perfect.

    At some point, if you haven’t already (I am a relative new-comer), I’d love for you to go n-depth on the subject of telling if your horse is sound. Mine are at home so I have the luxury of being able to watch them a lot. They are moving freely, nothing is obvious, but I imagine a certain amount of adrenaline can override pain/discomfort.

    And if vets aren’t telling us the true picture of our horse’s soundness, how do we ask them to do so?

    Thanks for all you do.

    • Good idea for a blog, and I don’t believe vets are holding out on us, I think medicine is an art and diagnosing those who don’t speak our language makes it trickier. I’m saying that we need to educate ourselves about reading pain in horses.Thanks, Kim.

  4. Love this – I never knew this train of thought until I acquired an abused ex amish standardbred – He has taught me so many of these things – nice to see them in writing – dealing with his fear and my own – we have learned together to let each go at our own pace – it is all about our relationship – It was so sad to see him tremble and just shut down – I respect his needs and we just hang together more than we ride – so rewarding to have him seek me out, to hang with instead of his horse friends – I have taken him on some “scary ” trail rides and obstacle events – I love that he now looks to me for reassurance – we may not win a ribbon But I win everytime he tries for me 😊

    Brycie

    “Always be yourself, unless of course you can be a unicorn – then always be a unicorn”

    ________________________________

  5. “Sometimes doctoring an injury and changing bandages can do more to bring a horse to you than any training method.””

    I spent the first year with my horse, an OTTB, doctoring him. He had a bad abscess. Came in from the field on three legs one afternoon. In fact most of our relationship has been built out of the saddle. With me bent over wrapping diapers securely around a hoof. Or treating a blown curb. Or later, icing a tendon in a muck tub full of water, and a bag of ice form a local convenience store.
    He is my love, my partner, my best friend. He will follow me anywhere. And I do all that I do, for him. And it’s amazing how jealous it makes the some of the other “horse people” in my barn.
    They want what he and I have. That calming, actual relationship. But it didnt come overnight. It took months of not being able to ride him. It took months of getting up extra early to be there to feed him in the morning. It took me leaving my family during vacation, to go muck, soak, wrap, treat, his arthritic knee twice a day. It took LISTENING. It took TIME. And it took CARING to listen. learn, and to take the time. So many of the other horse people in my barn don’t want to do that. They come. They barely groom. They tack up. They ride. They show. But they dont spend the time listening. And they look at us, wanting what we have. Trying to do the things I can do with my son, but failing. They dont get it. No amount of talking to them will make them understand why he and I are so close. And I feel bad for them. Because they are truly missing out on a amazing relationship with their potential partners. Because that is all they have, until they listen. Is “potential”

  6. Fabulous! I have focused on breathing with my horse in every interaction with him, while hand grazing, feeding, watching him eat. Amazing how he lowers his head and relaxes when I breath out. Thank you for the articulate and carefully written insights you share with those of us seeking a different way to be with horses.

  7. If only…so many horse people miss the obvious. How can we spread the message?

    On Fri, May 4, 2018, 5:38 AM Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” Some of us value horses for their physical working > ability on ranches, we “use ’em hard.” Decent care, no frills. Some of us > think horses were put on the earth to be spiritual healers and therapists; > we use them emotionally. Some of us commi” >

  8. I’m not sure why reading this series has been so emotional for me; I’m going to credit it to my experience of tearing up when I hear any truth. Sometimes I read something and it’s only days later that I recognize its posterity, but here I’ve seen each word as important knowledge for anyone who cares about horses. I’ve LOVED playing with presence, and just moving, and being in the bubble with my boy. And my only fear about the ending of this series is that I’ll forget to return to the bubble every visit. I hope not! The gifts have been amazing. Our Just Move time together was blissful; and your suggestion to let that be the majority of our time together, allowing 15 minutes of “training” was also permissive – allowing me to enjoy that slow warmup for us both. Almost exactly 45 minutes in the saddle, he perked up, reached for the bit on his own and picked up a happy trot. I had been showing off his new bowing head trick to some of my younger barn buddies, and giggling, and it all flowed through to his joyful energy too. He loves to play! Thank you for an excellent series I will reread and share often.

  9. Thank you again, Anna. This series has been such a treat and I’m thankful we have the blog archives to return to when we need another dose, in case we stray from the bubble.

  10. Thank you, Anna… the combination of honesty and wit is always a winner for me. I think I got the most trust from a past , very anxious horse when he had a painful episode of scratches, and I was treating them daily, and even though the treatment was painful for him, he would “allow” me to do what I had to do, waiting patiently, when most of the time he danced around in fits of worry which I was endeavoring to understand and help. I have noticed and wondered about why horses accept medical treatment from us so sweetly. Thanks for offering up some ideas on that … sadly that horse perished in a flash flood but I felt our future together was bright at one point. I just hope Zen Bear knows I am listening and helping ( hopefully) ease his ulcer pain . Being the bright and intelligent horse he is, I imagine he does “know.”

    As one of your previous blogs mentioned or was entitled ” I’m just no fun anymore” as I can’t be around folks who blame and criticize their horses. OR who talk about the horse as if he/she was created to “help” or heal the human. So I’m glad you addressed that issue as well in this latest blog. Thank you, thank you, thank you !!!

  11. Thank you Anna for this series and all your blogs. You put into words the the things I have felt in my heart about horses for most of my life. Especially the part about current pain and the responsibility that rests with us at the end of a life. I wish I had listened more in the past to myself and not others who have the “ride them through it” thing, and have always felt uncomfortable with the idea of horses being used to heal us. Again the word “used” holds the key to human attitude. It is really good to hear my thoughts echoed with such love and humour! I look forward to reading more from you……

  12. I am not blessed with a living situation that supports keeping the red pony at home. I HAVE been blessed to find a boarding situation where he is kept out with a herd 24/7, weather permitting, with free choice hay. For most of his day he is “JUST” a horse.

    While I love hacking out on trails and navigating obstacle courses, not every time together is spent doing this. Sometimes we just hang out, no pressure.

    What is neat is how he gets excited when I arrive at the barn. He knows the sound of my car and often meets me at the gate. Last night he was in the back field. When I came to the gate and called, he cantered up to meet me (bringing his herd with him). Maybe this is anthropomorphizing, but it feels to me that he WANTS to hang out with me.

    This is more important than any of the prizes and ribbons we have won. Let me rephrase that. This is the PRIZE I have won.

  13. Hi Anna,

    So much of what you have to say resonates with me. I wish the whole world could hear you because you have the courage and heart to say what needs to be said. I am sitting wondering why I have still not been able to let go of my past issues, no matter what avenues I have our pursued to do so. And now I have a horse, and you’re right – I somehow look to him to try to heal the old wounds. What a pain in the ass I must be to him! At least now I am starting to recognize the “desperate” nature of my in interaction at times.

    But, I love him and that counts. I am mature enough to recognize my shortcomings once they are pointed out to me – so, thank you for pointing that out to us all. I’ve never had a horse, and really had much to do with them except for lessons now and again. Bizarre but true – I grew up hearing that a young horse had kicked my grandmother in the stomach postpartum , when she was opening the gate for the horses – and caused her bleed out and die at age 28. My mother told me this story more than once when I was growing up. Many years later we discovered that it wasn’t a horse at all – it was her husband who liked to kick her. Since my mom was only 6 weeks old when her mother died, she grew up hearing that a young horse killed her mother. Anyway, point is – I learned to fear horses, always believing they were just a kick away. But, I didn’t want to fear them – I just had this visceral fear of being kicked.

    But, in my late 50’s, I decided enough is enough and I looked for a horse rescue to volunteer with. Turns out, several mares were pregnant, and long story short, I “adopted’ a baby. He turns 3 in a few days, and he is all mine. (desperate, I know). But, he lives at a wonderful stable and is with a herd all day long with acres to run in. I’ve had help with him of course, but this journey is a long one, I have SO much to learn, and everyone says something different, and I so badly want to do the right thing for him and me. I spent tons of time with him in the pasture when he was a baby, because fortunately I was not working that year. So, we have a great connection but, he needs to learn stuff that I kinda suck at teaching because I’ve never done it, or even seen it done.

    However, I do know that a lot of people who think they know what they’re doing with horses don’t know anything at but damn its hard to figure out until it’s too late!

    So here I am – is he supposed to be lunging oat this point or isn’t he? Should he be longing at all? Everybody lunges their horses at the stable he lives at. And, how come he’s still such a pain about getting his feet done ( the farrier says he has ADD – the same guy who I hand-picked since he was 8 months old, so they kinda know each other by now. He does need a strong hand from time to time, and I trust this guy. No abuse. Ever.

    I’ve done clicker training with him, but it’s different than a dog – a lot different, and I probably suck at it. I haven’t pressured him hardly at all. But, certain “trainers” that have worked with him, have. And he has not responded well to it. I’ve seen him be really scared and tired, and dripping with sweat and I feel like shit for it. But, thankfully none of those people got more than one session with him. The trainer I trusted the most is now unavailable, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or which way to turn. I just wanna do what’s right for my horse.

    If you don’t understand, who will? Thanks for listening.

    • Well, he’s a baby. Three is very young and there’s lots of time. I’ll hope you’ll just keep on going slow and breathing. It’s a journey years long, and you have good intention. It’ll work out. Good luck and thanks, Joan, for the comment. Hope you’ll keep us posted.

  14. Brilliant bubble series Anna. All who read you know how much you do for riders. But you are doing even more for horses.

  15. Thank you for this series. It has helped me a great deal. I am currently working with a rescue horse. I haven’t been able to touch her for over a month, but we share space on a regular basis. I find her breaths and my own matching most of the time, and she even trots across the pasture to be near me. Maybe one day she will reach out and touch me.

  16. Our bubble gets a wee bit bigger and stronger every day along with staying calm and quiet…which can be a struggle for us. Remembering to breath with him definitely helps. =-)

  17. This is such an important and enlightening point that you make in this week’s post. If only they could talk and tell us how they feel. I just lost my very beloved Pinto, Patches at the age of 31. I was grateful to have been able to take care of him for the last fifteen years. He had many different jobs before I met him, he was a pick up horse in the rodeo, then a ranch horse, then finally a lesson horse. I often wished that he could talk to tell me stories of his past.

  18. I so appreciate Ann’s book, Relaxed and Forward. I am working with a 9 year old rescue paso fino. I was noticing some fear reactions from her, so I started from square one following Ann’s teaching. What a difference in just a couple of weeks! She is so much more relaxed now and we are learning to respect each other.

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