The Power of Yes


Ever noticed how easy it is to see the horse who’s resistant? How easy it is to pick out the rider with bad hands? The biggest complaint that riders seem to have is that railbirds are critical of their horsemanship. So, they’re critical of the ones being critical. Some rider’s hate competition because they don’t like judgment, but isn’t that a judgment? And to be honest, I have some passionately held negative opinions myself, even knowing it’s like chasing my own tail.

It takes no special skill to find fault. It’s practically a human’s default position. Our education in right-and-wrong begins right after birth and our desire stay right kicks in just after that. Ever listened to a toddler reprimand a dog? It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Making corrections is so normal to us, we do it unconsciously. Small passive things like tidying a friend’s collar or mentioning food in their teeth, and it’s considered a common courtesy to point out such imperfections. We fix the things that aren’t right.

Naturally, it happens with horses, too, because we care. We want them to do right and we have the superpower to see wrong. So, ten strides from the mounting block, a horse gets corrected for being not quite on the rail. We’ll pull an inside rein, worried that they might counter-bend. We’ll judge the walk too slow, kick them forward, and then pull back because we didn’t’ ask for a trot. Have two minutes passed?

True, this isn’t brutal domination. Maybe I should let it go, we have good intention, after all. Like the comments some mothers make about their daughter’s hair, and clothes, and relationship choices, and a thousand other little things that she could point out to improve her daughter’s life. It’s the kind of “love” that can wear your confidence down.

Back to working with horses, constant correction sends the message that nothing is ever good enough. The problem with nagging is it doesn’t work, while demeaning to both sides. Soon the horse stops listening and the rider gets louder, or vice versa. Time for some serious training now. All the old voices come back: You can’t let him win. You have to show him who’s boss. Watch this video. Read that book. Get some spurs. Hire a cowboy.

It’s a runaway: The horse is wrong, so you’re wrong, but all the advice is wrong. In your heart, you believe dominance-based training is wrong, but every other idea you can imagine, including giving up, is wrong.

What if you just said YES?

The world comes apart, of course. Without discipline, we are all lost. Horses would become wild and dangerous. Toddlers would drive cars. Goats would clean out the fridge.

How much do we believe that good behaviors only work when taught with a threat (negative reinforcement) behind them?

Does being an affirmative trainer mean you’re permissive?  Someone who never teaches boundaries and watches as her horse kicks the farrier? Someone whose horse doesn’t like arena work or much of anything else? Oh please, horses and riders rise to the very top of every riding discipline with affirmative training. It might be your imagination that needs to hear a YES.

Start by paying attention to your default behaviors. Notice the corrections that you usually don’t notice. Don’t change them just notice the things you do without mental awareness. What is the overall tone of your interchange? Let your horse answer that question. It isn’t about happy or sad, it’s about engagement and connection.

What if you just said YES? Consider it a dare. Literally, the only word you get to use is YES. And no, you don’t get to sit in a chair and mumble yes. You actually have to ask for a behavior, mounted or on the ground. So, perhaps a cue to walk on. If he thinks about doing it, you say YES. Inhale, and if he shifts his weight, again, YES.

Training happens by successive approximation; he does something kind of like what we want, and we say YES to let him know he’s getting warmer. YES to let him have the time to figure out what we want. YES makes it a game instead of a job.

Saying YES isn’t as easy as it sounds, is it? It means if you get a wrong answer, it’s on you to find a better way to ask. You have to say YES to your own creativity and spontaneity. Like chess, you must think ahead. It takes more energy to be positive. But we knew that; being critical is also the laziest thing in the world.

Saying YES requires us to stay engaged every second. We must mentor that energy and responsiveness we want from horses by staying engaged and positive.

Pause here. I remember holding a nervous horse for a vet and all our anxiety was growing but a harsh correction confirms his fear. I chirped out, “YES!” The vet looked at me like I was a crazy woman, the sort of dolt who teaches a horse to misbehave. Actually, I do know the type; a light chatter with the horse is commiserating, which is no help, but an affirmation can change everything. So, in a strong, confident voice, “Good boy!” and with that positive reminder, the horse relaxed. I’m sure the vet thought it was a fluke.

There are a million reasons for saying YES. The horse is trying. He’s getting closer. He got it right. He could use some energy. He needs a boost to his confidence, encouragement to keep trying. Say YES to hold interest. YES is the reward for staying in the process, until successfully completing it.

Saying YES lifts the quality of the conversation. Initially, you may need to do some translating: instead of unconsciously correcting each fault, you’re looking for the best response and aiming for a question that might evoke that answer. It’s you raising your entire thought process to find a way to encourage confidence, so the horse feels right all the time.

Less correction, more direction. YES is a game of possibility.

Pause again: In high school, my friend Bob always opened car doors for me. He stood a little funny when he did it, a hand on his belly. One day he told me that he had four sisters and if he didn’t rush to get the door, one of his sisters would punch him in the gut. He laughed in a self-deprecating way. Even now, I share his discomfort.

Affirmative training is an evolved choice, a place where there are no limits. Our horses volunteer a YES, with confidence that lets us feel better about ourselves. In time, affirmative thought changes the way the world looks, from the bottom up, not a mess needing correction, but a place of beautiful possibility.

Most importantly, affirmative training changes us. We become our best selves, not because horses have healed us but because we have earned our own confidence. They like us to stand a little taller beside them.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Clinician, Equine Pro

51 comments

  1. “YES and” those are the two most important words when doing Improvisational acting which I performed and taught (off and on) for many years. How perfect that they would work so well in training my horses!! Yet as that (sometimes very dull) lightbulb lit up in my brain, I thought of how many times those two little words helped me in a situation that had nothing to do with theatre OR horses. In LIFE the positive does work so much better than the negative!! Thanks again for being my lamp ❤

  2. And I say “YES!” to all you have to say 🙂

    Seriously, your columns resonate with me and I am so glad I found you. ❤

  3. YES! Yes to this great post and yes to how valuable ‘yes’ is with our horses. I have been working on the ‘yes’ very hard this week in my under saddle work with my horse but I did not have a name for it. So will ride today with “yes” in my mind. Thank you.

  4. Today I definitely need a yes, so thank you. Yes, I will try to keep that my focus for the rest of the day, with or without my horse or my kids, just Yes.

  5. A very timely topic this morning… I needed to hold a poultice on my horse Cash’s eye lid for a few moments. He tends to turn head away – calming signal maybe- and avoid this initially, and then surrenders his eye to me when he remembers (??) that this helps his eye feel so much better. or just gives in .. not sure which. ( Have to do this little home remedy 2 or 3 times a year) So this morning, I praised him with a YES for even thinking about letting me do this, and HE came around to telling ME “yes” much quicker and much less back and forth between us. He actually kind of pressed his head and eye into the cloth. Nice !

  6. “Yes” and “breath” are like magical doors that open so many possibilities with one’s horse. Thank you for showing us this path of communication with our partners!

  7. I don’t work with horses, but I love this in my work with people and their health. The idea that sickness could be a “yes”, a direction (probably a direction-change in fact) rather than a correction, a new possibility. I love looking at our natural responses as messages and information to which we could say “yes” and imagine whole new ways coming into being with that.

  8. This is nice. I am not a horse person…I only love them from afar. I like this blog and I think I can do this and I also think I do this with my dogs. I’ll have to pay attention. Last night, I visited my neighbors mule, Harriot. She is afraid of me, on my trike with my two dogs attached. We rode by and she ran around in circles. On the way back I called her name and stopped. I talked to her for about two minutes and little by little she came to the rail. I got up and walked to her. My two goldens sat still like the angels they are not and waited while I scratched Harriot’s ears. When I drove off, she did not act nervous and I think I made a friend. I will try again next time with ” Yes Harriot, come to the rail! Good Girl! It’s such a great idea. Thank you.

    • Yay, thanks for the great comment. And yes, it’s totally the same with dogs. Can I just add one more thing? Harriot was very brave, donkeys and mules generally don’t like dogs much. So your goldens took that cue and you gave another. Yes!!! Thanks, Dianna.

  9. Long exhale….. Thanks Anna, for when life throws bricks and I choose yes instead of resistance.

  10. Anna, Loved this post…that has been my experience, as well. Horses in general respond beautifully to positive energy and especiall trust, which is what YES engenders, I guess.

  11. A most emphatic YES!!! I know it works. I’ve seen Rudd do this. I so this with my dogs and spouse (although the spouse is extremely resistant), the step-kids (and noted that they learned to do it with their own children), with friends and even myself. Sometimes you just have to give yourself a good YES too.

  12. YES! Thank you for your thoughts. How do you know so often just what I need to hear? I have been saying Yes to one horse who can be anxious, this is working well to improve his confidence and yet, I, the same person, have been saying No to my other horse, the young one, wbo “needs” discipline. Thank you for reminding me that what he needs is guidance. 🙂

  13. Once again, this is widely applicable. Thanks, Anna. I look forward to every blog – and photo/poem. ❤

    • I’m not sure why it’s such a journey to get to saying yes, it certainly was for me, but what a sweet spot. Thank you, Jean. I hope I get back to your neighborhood one of these days.

  14. Anna, thank you for this post. It rings true for how I relate to my long-time partner who has memory issues. It is a reminder to be positive with her, pointing out how well she does tasks and thanking her, rather than “fixing” her way to be like mine. I don’t have a horse now, don’t ride, do volunteer with a therapy program. Your posts help me to do better in my life.

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Cathy, thank you for commenting. Of all the times to say yes, you are in a big one now. Is there a finer gift in a long-time relationship than to just say yes? (And glad you still get some horse hair on you, it’s still a miracle.) Thank YOU Cathy.

  15. Great post, Anna. I don’t think I can hear this enough, this notion of saying “yes.” It has a thousand implications with horses and with life in general. I have to ask – is that blue-eyed horse photo from AK by any chance??

    • I hear that, I’ve heard ‘no’ so often, I can use all the yes I can get! And this blue-eyed pony was a rescue I had here for a year of rehab. Same as me with the no… Thanks, Kaylene.

  16. Brilliant! Thank you Anna for another truly uplifting piece of prose. Encouraging and humbling at the same time…lots of food for thought!

  17. A big fat resounding YES! This is the most powerful affirmation of life I have read in a long time. Thank you again Anna for being that angel on my shoulder when I need it most. Guess what word is going up on the wall of my shed? Oh and of course Trixie will thank you again too x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.