Hindsight Argument for Affirmative Training

He was a huge gelding with obvious draft blood. I could see white all the way around his eye. It had been months of every little thing being a really big deal. A big deal that he goes into a smaller pen of fence panels. A big deal to let a human in with him. A big, slow deal to get a halter on him. Breathe.

The client had ridden him at his old barn before she bought him. He was very timid, but she thought he’d be easy. It was her first horse and the wrong people encouraged her. It’s possible that the seller wasn’t entirely truthful or that the client didn’t understand the meaning behind what she heard. When he got to the new home, he totally fell apart, meaning she couldn’t get near him, and that’s where I came in.

When I start with a new client, I listen to everything they say. Then I listen to the horse. If the stories don’t match, I believe the horse. It’s common sense; where else could we start?

This gelding, all twelve-hundred-pounds of him, was as frightened a horse as I’ve known. Dangerous, not by being aggressive, but just by his own sheer terror. It was all he could do to stay in his skin. When his poll was tense, and it always was, I couldn’t reach as high as his brow. Horses like this could as easily harm themselves as someone around them. Also, the kind of horse a human could over-romanticize.

One day I was working with him in hand. Every step, he was thoughtful, trying so hard I thought he might spontaneously combust. To say I did a lot of breathing with this horse, well, it was all I could do. Words were too loud. Going slow was too fast. We took a break; I was a few feet away, facing his cheek, breathing.  His owner came toward us to ask a question and I turned my head toward her to answer. He blew a long exhale, kind of like mine. I said another sentence to the owner and he blew again, moving so his head was between us, facing me, and he exhaled again, even more insistently. And he was right, we were not done. I could talk to her later.

I’d never been given such a blunt cue, from such an unlikely horse. “Breathe with me, dammit!” Why do I nag about breathing so often? Horses like him have taught me.

After months of the tiniest progress, he had a regression. It happens with most horses, but his was extreme and it was hard on his novice owner. She decided to buy a riding horse. She’ll always keep him, she loves him, but now with no expectations.

This horse was an anomaly. Most horses, even rescues, never feel a fraction of the fear this horse carried. But still, most horses have some bad memories that get in the way.

Horse brains work somewhat like ours but with important differences. They are conscious and aware, but they don’t have creative thought as we understand it. So, they don’t plan a revolt to rule the world, no vendetta against you, your clean clothes, or your plans for the weekend.

Horses do have a very strong memory. They retain their experiences. Take a moment to ponder this. It’s the foundation of their confidence and ability to learn when addressed in an affirmative way. They can learn quickly, remember training, even extrapolate training to different circumstances. Memory is also their worst enemy. Their memories are timeless, keeping bad history just as close and real.

Imagine the bad history a horse has experienced as a stack of papers. Perhaps your horse has a few sheets or perhaps he has a stack as tall as the ceiling. Visualize that stack but know you may never take any papers away. Bad experience is not negated by good training. The best we can do is start a new stack of papers; start to collect good experiences in hopes of overwhelming the bad stack. Eventually.

When the stack of new affirmative experiences is as tall as the stack of bad, is the horse okay? Not usually. It might take three stacks, three times the number of bad memories. It’s up to the horse, some will need ten times. It’s part of the reason there are ups and downs during training. The horse is adjusting, going between present experience and his past or default experience. In other words, on a good day, he might experience a thing that reminds him of a past thing, and he becomes unstuck in the present. He might barely hesitate, or he might have a full-blown PTSD-like episode.

Psychological or physical trauma has no expiration date.

For example, some horses will come out of a trailer wreck and go right back in. Some will never go near a trailer again. Most are in the middle of that continuum. More complicated, there are traditional training methods that are kind, based in brain science, and those that rely on fear and domination. Fear confirms bad memories and damages trust.

As much as we might want to, we can’t take the bad memories away. Pause to understand there is no delete button. We can’t control how they feel. Each individual horse decides what qualifies as abuse, not us. Some will be reactive and some will be stoic, perhaps appearing to go along for a while. There is no facsimile for trust.

Being a trainer is like being a couple’s therapist. It’s about finding common ground between individuals so the relationship can begin to flourish. I don’t usually meet horses at their best, and beyond that, I’ve worked with lots of seriously troubled horses over the years. They never leave me. I keep a stack of memories of them in my mind, a tall stack.

Most of my training approach has come from working with broken horses. I learn in hindsight, just like horses. We have to look at what we are doing and if it doesn’t work, just stop. For instance, in my experience, escalating cues does more harm than good. It creates anxiety that distracts from the cue. It’s like believing shouting resolves a confused or disjointed conversation; that the loudest one wins. It’s our nature to escalate. Our instinct works against us with horses.

We are human. We have bad days, short tempers, hormonal stress. We get late or we listen to bad advice or we fall into a default mode of dominance. We aren’t perfect but we are good at making excuses. Just stop. Know that every interaction with a horse impacts him forever. Discipline yourself to a higher standard.

You cannot subtract from that stack of bad experiences your horse holds. But your horse wants you to know you do have one choice; you can absolutely refuse to add more.

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

36 comments

  1. Thank you Anna,
    Once again you’ve hit the spot and explained everything so clearly. My little mare was damaged, slowly, slowly,we are working it out. Your words of wisdom are a tremendous help.

    Kate and Karina 🦄

  2. I love this one,too, Anna. One of my problems is always wanting to analyze why, what made the stack of papers so tall, but you’re so right – no matter what I do, I can’t change any of that from the past, the history I will never know. All I can do is work on the now for the future. Thank you.

  3. If we can only learn one thing from all of your blogs, to me this is the most important.
    Thanks, Anna

  4. You nailed it with the PTSD comparison. My boy, my sweet, steady, level headed boy, had SOMETHING happen in the past that involved long reins or harness. I don’t know which or what happened, but I discovered this when he and I were learning the basics of ground driving and a line slipped down a bit and touched him right above the hock- and he EXPLODED. My experienced trainer confirmed that it wasn’t like an “eek i didn’t like that” but more like “holy crap flashback”. And then he was even more freaked out because of his own reaction and loss of self control. I spent a good long time breathing, and then just asking for a walk on a SINGLE one of the lines, with a lot of praise, halts, approaching for a pat, sending him back out, until he was confident enough not to cling to me like a velcro pony. I can’t fix him, and he’ll never be safe to hook, but I can help him get over THIS incident- just not the original one.

  5. Brings back a memory of a young Morgan filly that came into our barn -supposed to become a driving horse to show. She had been at a trainer (I believe he was a good one) but when they got to the point of hooking her to a cart – they couldnt prevent her from kicking out. So she came “home”. Found out later that she and her mother apparently had not been handled (former owner) & in order to catch her to trailer her to her new home – they chased both into a stall & somehow got her away from her mother. I boarded at the barn(new home) & started just talking to her – began brushing her & picking her feet – of course giving her pcs of apples etc. Quite honestly it wasnt very long – a matter of months – before she obviously loved the grooming – would pick up each foot if I just paused & asked. I started putting her on cross ties & grooming her in the aisle (had been only handling her in her stall) & she really blossomed. Her owner (barn owner) started lunging & saddling her – was not long before she was being ridden. She was a lovely lovely girl. But not going to make a driving horse! She was sold to a woman who started riding her, but ended up as a brood mare. She got a good home, but even tho I had my own horse (and would NOT trade him for anything) I hated to see her go. She was special & I’ll never forget her.
    Her fear when she came there was very very real – I think she was 2 or 3 at the time. The care she received there may not have caused her stack of memories to vanish, but I believe she acquired a whole new set – which is as it should be. Unlike many horses whose original “purpose” doesnt work out – hers did. I heard after the fact that she was a great mom & had beautiful babies.
    Thanks for bringing back one of MY stacks of memories, Anna.

  6. My rescue cat Frank is like this. Over the decade we’ve been together, the good stack takes us through most events, but there are times when an outside event causes him to panic. He teaches me a great deal, as you do Anna thank you.

  7. Love this Anna. We have had many rescue dogs and cats. Some brought huge stacks of bad. In the end it took some time and they felt safe & cared for.

  8. “you can absolutely refuse to add more” Don’t know why but this hits me in the chest!!! I’m gonna try hard to live by this – especially with my skeptical mare who no one loves but me!!!! I think her bad stack is way over my head! Thank you once again!

    • Me, too, Suzanne. Drawing a line is an emotional thing… that your mare will believe when she’s ready. Gotta love mares. Thanks for reading.

  9. I really like this and never really thought of past experiences like this. I’ve recently discovered positive reinforcement training (after years of believing that natural horsemanship was gentle and humane), but my eyes have since been opened wide to this whole new amazing world of training and relationship with the horse. I think what I see happen a lot is the thought that even an abused horse, after so long being in a “good home” should “know better” and just behave. But this article puts things into more perspective about the importance of having the utmost of patience and unconditional understanding for a reaction that a horse has, whether or not we know why it happened. It is slightly discouraging to think that we cannot “take away” the past memories of any maltreatment, but is encouraging to know we have the opportunity to build the “positive experience” stack. We are so lucky that horses let us do half the things that we ask them to do, and that in itself is incredible!
    Keep up the great blogs!

      • Yes that is very true, I remember a lot of my bad experiences well, and makes a lot of sense that horses would as well, and even more so since that is how they would survive in the wild, would be to learn quickly what to stay away from.

  10. Very insightful! When I got my gelding, almost 3 yrs. ago, he acted very scared of fly spray, especially around his back legs. His legs would actually shake! It’s taken me all this time to get him to relax and, finally, no more shaking legs. We start slow, always moving in the same directions, speaking softly, waiting until I see his eyes soften before moving on. I don’t know what trauma he remembers but I want him to trust that I won’t be the cause of any further bad memories. My reward is a wonderful and willing horse partner.

  11. I’ve read that our human brains have evolved to pay more attention to the negative than the positive (ancient survival mechanism) and that we need to really absorb and fully bask in positive experiences whenever we have them (instead of just letting them slip by) in order to counteract this bias. It’s supposed to take something like 5 good positive experiences to balance the effect of one negative one. Kind of helpful to realise that even with the capacity for creative thought, we still need this healing ourselves. Thanks for another amazingly helpful post!

  12. Wonderful piece, Anna. By that, I mean that it’s left me with a reference point to come back to when distractions or pressures start to interfere. I love the way that you put the horse first, but at the same time you extend tolerance and understanding to the often-clumsy human partner!

  13. Hi Anna. The big gelding you describe is a lot like my gelding. He came out of the slaughter pen and had been starved and beaten and went to a woman who ended up being afraid of him. Underneath all of the trauma, he is very sensitive and reactive in nature-hence her fear. He then came to me. I was instantly attracted to him and compared to my first horse, he seemed almost “normal”! (a very looong story) The first day he was here, it took 2 hours to get a halter on him…in a confined space! The “strangest” things would set off his PTSD-the sound of a zipper, my wearing a long, duster style coat or an unanticipated hand movement (at a distance). Several years have now passed. It took him about 5 years to be willing to put his head into a halter. This year, our 8th together, he has FINALLY with much use of the “happy voice” and scratches, will come over to the side of the corral to let me take off his fly mask. (He has an inch scar on the base of one of his ears…. ) He has an incredible sense of humor, loves to play, and is fabulous with kids. His PTSD is still there and will always be so I have adjusted my expectations. Because of his “freak outs” I began to learn about desensitizing and helping horses become more confident. He adores Trick Training and stands up on the pedestal with a visible sense of “TA DA”! I have other horses who have no such issues and are much better at being handled but will not ever be able to teach me all that I have learned from him. Great article!!

  14. This wonderful piece of writing describes one of my horses that I didn’t raise but bought elsewhere. He taught me how traumatic a physical move can be on horses. He was lost and lonely, but soon hooked up with one of my (more patient!) mares. The two of them went everywhere together. The more kindness, patience, and understanding I showed him, the greater he rose to whatever bar he thought he could reach that day based on his level of trust. And then we would stop. Horses like this teach us as much about them as ourselves. I so appreciate your work work and your writing, Anna, as do our horses.

  15. This wonderful piece of writing describes one of my horses that I didn’t raise but bought elsewhere. He taught me how traumatic a physical move can be on horses. He was lost and lonely, but soon hooked up with one of my (more patient!) mares. The two of them went everywhere together. The more kindness, patience, and understanding I showed him, the greater he rose to whatever bar he thought he could reach that day based on his level of trust. And then we would stop. Horses like this teach us as much about them as ourselves. I so appreciate your work and your writing, Anna, as do our horses.

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