The air goes still on my prairie during that instant when my finished inhale lifts gravity and just before that slow release leaves my body healed and whole, upright in that cool instant that holds forever. I know there will be no stalling and the very last thing I would do is kill time. Let every pore of each sense be curious of it's passion. Eyes that discern the exact shade of the color in the light, a sweet moment to feel the company of sisters living in this breath, this scent that tells the story of those who passed this way, and leaves us curious. Alert to a question, what if this isn't wrong? What if there is a gift in this pause of time that will be uncovered in the next inhale? Hold still, irreverent joy, to sense the precise equity of moistness and heat in the air as the Earth breathes us into her lungs and cradles us, precious as napping foals on yellow straw. Precious as the flash-edge of a cloud at the scarlet strike of sunset.
Pause here. Look in his eye. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. If we’re going to agree with scientists that horses are sentient beings, with feelings not unlike our own, when will we start treating them that way?
In riding lessons, I ask math questions a lot. Not real math, of course. It’s more a theoretical sort of math, like “what percent of your horse is forward” or “rate this trot on a scale from one to ten.” It’s short-hand to quantify where we are compared to where we started and where we’d like to be.
The usual way I hear short-hand math talked about in the barn is to quantify leadership. Like most horse things, there is a long continuum of opinion. Some demand their horse submits to 100% human leadership. Equine slavery, I’m thrilled to say, is not tolerated here. It’s easy to deplore. We shake our heads and tsk-tsk our tongues. But 100% cheerful compliance would be great.
We want a partnership with our horses. And once we really agree to that, the confusion and weird math begins. Should it be a 50-50 balance? Does the human get the deciding vote, 51-49? Or because you have a goal with your horse, 60-40? Or maybe you missed the vote entirely and you just go along for the ride, 90-10, to his favor.
Definition of leadership: The ability to provide another sentient the feeling of safety. In this case, a horse.
Humans are extremists. Sometimes, in an attempt to evolve and not dominate horses, we just chatter away kindly. We over-cue, carefully introducing their halter for the millionth time and the horse might even politely sniff it. Maybe he thinks he should because we act like it’s a brand-new thing each time. We chatter about cleaning his feet and might even think he’s listening, when the truth is that it’s the same order of hooves every time. A horse would have to be brain-damaged to not learn that pattern and obligingly pick up his foot.
In other words, we think we’re training things that they know inside-out. It’s like reading a grade school primer in college. Boring at best. Worst is they think we aren’t all that bright. What would it take to teach up to his level?
I think horses kindly recognize human chatter as a calming signal. Meaning it calms us to chatter away. Maybe they assess what percentage of their rider is stressed out and roles reverse.
Definition of chatter: The rattle and bang of constant noise. Legs and seat and hands and voice that just never stop flapping and nicking and correcting. As annoying as flies buzzing, landing, circling, and buzzing some more. It’s the crazy-making babbel that any self-respecting horse would shut out to save his sanity.
About this time, since we don’t want to dominate or chatter away, we decide to listen. No, really listen. We learn their calming signals and their unique detailed preferences. The more we listen, the more they share, affirmed that humans are pulling it together. It’s thrilling to have a corner of understanding that didn’t start in a human brain, but instead is something you learned from a horse. Listening is pure joy.
We listen to our horses so hard, with such focus and patience… that our horses hear crickets. Silence from us. They revert to doubting our intelligence and worry that they are the only sentients in the room. Horses might wonder if, between the scream of domination and the silence of listening, humans are void of the ability to have a simple conversation.
Definition of a conversation: Cues that might be body language or movement, or intention –eye contact along with a thought. The least important part is verbal. The most important part is that there are two sides conversing.
The focus is to shape a response on both sides. You give a cue for walking and pause. He considers the request and walks. You release your cue and breathe normally and follow the flow of his walk. In the beginning, it feels stilted like an Intro to French class. (Bonjour, comment vas-tu? Bon, Merci et vous?) But don’t get impatient and talk over each other.
Any positive training conversation starts with rewarding a good basic response. Behavioral science calls it ‘successive approximation’ implying an approximate answer, not the correct one.
In other words, one of you giving your best hints until the other guesses the right answer, like a game of equine charades. Creativity! A language between two species is born! Hear the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey? You get it.
How to quantify that kind of leadership conversation? 50-50 feels too flat and dull.
I think it might be an 80-20 percentage, but not static. The idea-and-response flip sides between the human and the horse in an instant. It’s a flash of intention and a spark of response. A cool breeze of release followed by quicksilver inspiration. So fluid that he finishes the thought before you fully articulate it. And his response was lighter and more beautiful than you imagined. It’s a dance that switches leader and follower every few strides.
If a rider complains about a lack of response in their horse, guessing that they only have 20% their horse’s attention, I think a better question might be what percentage of their attention is on their horse? Do we think it’s his job to hang in suspended animation until our next command? Isn’t that how domination works?
Why do humans limit an animal’s response by talking down to them? What if a better name for an unresponsive horse is a bored horse?
The art of communication with horses means evolving a language of successive approximation to a place of happy response on both sides. It takes a quiet and quick listening mind on the part of the human, along the same amount of physical self-awareness that a horse has. That’s the hard part. It would always be easier for a human to dominate or be passive.
Pause here. Look in his eye again. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. The question isn’t if he’ll meet our expectations. It’s what will we need to do meet his.
(Next week: How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist.)
I hear lots of horror stories in my line of work. “My horse just started bucking, for no good reason.” “He was flying like a kite on the end of my lead rope.” “One minute he was walking next to me and the next, I had smashed toes, my head knocked sideways, and he was running away.”
In that instant, your horse goes from being your soulmate to guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Slightly less paranoid riders would call his behavior a psychotic break. He became unpredictable. Uncontrollable. Is the term betrayal overly dramatic? He broke your trust.
Lucky for you there are some rail-birds ready to dispense training advice. Put a chain over his nose. Run him in the round pen until he gives in. Get a whip and show him who’s boss.
Whoa! Slow down. Can we rewind? Tell the lynch mob that you’ve got this. Because if the only response is hindsight punishment, riders are doomed. Here’s a radical thought: How about listening to him in the first place?
Disclaimer: There is the very rare occasion when a pain response forces a horse to explode without warning. Think bee sting. If there is an extreme response, look first at his physical condition.
In most cases, the horse runs away just one step at a time. He gives warnings repeatedly, as his anxiety grows. He holds it together as long as he can. If you’re listening, you have time. Learning to respond to calming signals from your horse can save both of you.
When I ask riders for the long version of what happened, the story unfolds differently. Maybe he was hard to catch that day, or impatient and a bit barn sour at the gate, or maybe especially girthy during saddling. She got complacent. Small details were ignored for expediency. Some of us are so busy in our own heads that we don’t even notice the small details. The rest of us were taught to plow on ahead no matter what because we can’t let the horse “win.”
Then his discomfort got confused with disobedience. Horses just have one way of communicating and it’s with their body. If a generally well-behaved horse nips or tosses his head, don’t think you can “correct” his anxiety with escalation. When we get resistance from a horse, pause and breathe. Then resolve the anxiety while it is small and manageable. Let your horse see you as worthy of his trust.
The biggest reason to listen to your horse is because you have the awareness equivalency of a blind, deaf, hairless mouse. Horses are prey animals forever; their senses are so much more acute than a human’s that we literally have no idea what’s going on, even if we’re paying attention. Let that sink in.
On top of that, science says that a horse’s response time is seven times quicker than ours; the fastest response time of any common domestic animal. When things come apart, it happens fast. It makes sense because flight – the instinct to sprint away from perceived danger – is the species’ primary defensive behavior.
I italicized instinct for a reason; it’s the important part. Is it fair to ask for obedience above instinct? The short answer is yes, our safety depends on it, but it’s complicated.
Say we’re walking to the arena. From the horse’s side, they pull their head away and graze because it’s their instinct to always eat. Horses are designed for full-time grazing. So we react by jerking the lead-rope. Fighting instinct is a bit like fighting gravity but humans have a plan and a clock ticking, so we get adversarial.
A rider with a greater understanding of her horse’s instincts and needs might feed a flake of hay while tacking up and then actively lead her horse to the arena by keeping a good forward rhythm in her feet. He has food in his stomach and she gets to ride within her time constraints. Best of all, there is no fight before the ride even starts. You can tell it’s good leadership because everyone “wins.”
Most of all, no one betrays anyone. The best reason for a rider to study and understand horse behavior is that learning their logic can keep us from a runaway of our own – an emotional runaway.
Granted, it’s a little easier to be logical in a discussion over grazing rights than it is in the middle of a dangerous bucking incident, but we have to start small.
And it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that, when you look at it this way, horses and humans aren’t that temperamentally well-suited to each other. So it goes; I don’t see either species giving up on each other.
All of this is to say that when your horse appears to overreact to his surroundings, he isn’t wrong. And adding our over-reaction on top won’t make things better.
At the same time, it’s our nature to think we know everything and that our plan is the only thing that matters. It’s a good reminder, even if your horses live on your property with you, that you are only a small part of their experience. They have fully dimensional lives, with emotional ups and downs, that have nothing do to with you at all.
If you want an unthinking partner with limited intelligence, dirt bikes are a good option. Otherwise, spend more time understanding and less time wishing horses were different. It takes more than a lifetime to understand horses. You don’t have any time to lose.
Yes, you could say that I’m making excuses for horses and, not as sympathetic as I should be toward humans who have been hurt and frightened. I just want to suggest that we be a bit more careful about the words we use to describe horse behaviors. We must learn to accept and support each other’s instincts for self-preservation because that’s how both species will flourish.
The words we choose matter, not because they give horses a bad name, but because they damage how we think of horses in our own hearts.
Next week I’ll talk about fear in Part Two: Now I’m afraid.
P.S. THANK YOU: This was a milestone week for my little blog. We passed one million views. It was a small thing in the course of world events but I noticed. I’m grateful, everyone, for the time you share here.
The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours.
I’ve never trusted my own senses. I consider it a good thing.
While I was still in grade school, I broke my nose on a sheep. These things happen; he was a big cross-eyed ram by the name of Grandpa. So, I don’t have a good sense of smell, but no worries, if I imagine what it might smell like I get by. It should impact my taste but you can’t convince me that raspberries taste better to you.
I was born with flimsy eardrums and flunked all my hearing tests in school. Two childhood surgeries later, no improvement. My parents debated whether I wasn’t able to hear or just didn’t listen. I do in fact have a hearing loss. It’s the lower tone range, so it’s mainly men I don’t listen to. I mean hear.
My eyes are my strongest sense. I have a spectacular eye for detail. But even on my best day, if I hadn’t learned to triangulate llama noses, I’d never be warned about visitors on my farm.
It bears repeating: The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours. Every moment.
Horses have a better hearing range with greater frequency than humans. They use it as an early defense system and we usually decide they’re distracted.
Their sense of smell is not as good as a dog, but still much better than ours, as evidenced in the spring when they become besotted with of the smell of new grass. We can’t tell unless a lawnmower has been by.
Their sense of touch is extremely acute; they can feel a fly on their lower hind leg. Do you think we might over-cue?
And vision -the equine eye is the largest of any land mammal. And like most prey animals, their eyes are set on the sides of their head, allowing them close to a 350° range of vision. Horses also have both binocular and monocular vision, which means they can process two separate images at the same time. Go ahead, pause here to push your glasses up your nose.
Most of us think our horses are psychic because it’s easier to believe than the truth about our own limited senses.
Compared to prey animals, we’re not nearly as aware of our surroundings. We tend to be loud and dominating, especially with our hands. We act like we know everything.
Back in the day on Saturday Night Live, Garrett Morris translated the “News for the Hard of Hearing.” He’d stand at the side in a bad parody of an ASL translator, cup his hands to his mouth and yell. Just holler it out. It gave me a deliciously guilty, politically-incorrect laugh.
But that’s how we are next to horses. We stand and yell, our normal tone qualifies, slowly enunciating each syllable as if the horse is deaf or stupid, or sadly, a child. We repeat ourselves, we escalate our cues. It’s what we were taught to do but they “heard” us the first time. It’s pretty arrogant for a human to think a horse isn’t aware of things twice as obvious to them as they are to us.
As the theoretically superior animal, it’s up to humans to learn the horse’s language. This is where not trusting your senses comes in handy for a horse-woman. It makes it easier to want to listen if you aren’t sure what’s going on.
I use the word “conversation” when writing about communicating with horses… but I don’t mean verbal. It isn’t about constantly chattering along, explaining to the horse that his mane is being brushed, that you’re going to pick up his feet now, that the saddle is next. He knows.
And it isn’t just baby talk and explanations about grooming. We sit crooked and our legs flop. Sometimes we kick with each stride. We twist around in the saddle like kids on a school bus. We can’t look to the side without flinging our shoulders around. You’d think we didn’t have peripheral vision
We create such a racket to their senses, that horses stop listening, not being disobedient but just to quiet the roar. It’s a calming signal to us. The cue that we can do less.
Much of what we do with horses is for ourselves. We use them for comfort and that isn’t a bad thing… unless we never give back. Unless we always think that it’s all about us. If you are looking for a better relationship with horses then listen more. Strive to understand them more for who they are rather than who we want them to be.
I use the word “conversation” with a horse because of what it doesn’t mean: Lecture. Soliloquy. Pontification. Sermonize.
Instead, let the air rest. It’s easier to listen then. Be curious in silence.
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let the rest go. It’s the opportunity your horse is waiting for. He might need a while to trust it but then he’ll tell you his side of things. It will make perfect sense.
Sometimes now as a clinician, I find myself speaking to a group while standing next to a horse. I’m talking as clearly and audibly as I can for the humans, even as I’m aware that I’m sounding like “News for the Hard of Hearing” to the horse.
They tolerate my noise because of another sense that I think horses have. It’s an awareness of intention. It’s the sentiment beyond silence.
I think it’s the best we can hope for from a horse; to find a bit of grace for our loud and rude ways. Perhaps he hopes that one day humans might learn to communicate.
The rider said that her mare had an undeniable “rushiness” and was always tense. The mare is five years old and in their first months together, the mare has had good ground manners. She tied and picked up her feet but walking out of the barn, she was way ahead or the rider had to pull her. The mare didn’t know how to stand still and wanted to walk in circles. Sometimes she got pushy with her muzzle.
The rider got criticism from other people at the barn; the mare just needed to work more, she was bored, that all horses need a job, etc. But working in the traditional ways (lunging) made the mare even busier and soon frantic. Finally, the rider settled on the goal of teaching her to do nothing. A great idea! And now supporters were talking about sitting in a chair in her pen.
Humans can be such extremists.
The rider has a good start; she’s listening. The mare is very young and moving a horse to a new barn is much more challenging for them than we understand. Settling in with a new owner and a new herd takes time. We can list her bad behaviors but focusing on correcting her mistakes and not dealing with the underlying problem will only have limited success. The mare sounds very anxious.
After such a huge life change, I’d expect this young mare might have a sour stomach, if not ulcers. First thing is always to make sure she is physically okay. Because change is hard and these calming signals may also be symptoms of pain.
Some folks would say that mares are just that way. They use names to describe mares that we women don’t like being called. Well, it’s true that mares are more like stallions than they are geldings… they have hormones. In my experience, mares don’t enjoy blind repetition of menial work like some geldings can. Mares are smart and want more engagement. I think it speaks well of them to require their riders to be more creative.
And kudos for stopping the frantic lunging. It sounds like this young mare knows all about it. People mistake the purpose of lunging and use it to wear a horse out. It wears out they bodies, too, and while exhaustion can pass for obedience, it doesn’t teach the horse a thing. Or most riders either, apparently, since it is still common advice.
Sitting with her is harmless enough. It’s fun in the pen with horses. Some people bring a book. The mare can tell she isn’t being asked to do anything so it’s probably peaceful. But be clear; this isn’t building relationship either. The stress comes with being handled and that’s where the healing will come, too.
Responding to horses doesn’t have to be fast and aggressive. Or dull and passive. We can do better than these extremes.
First, this mare gets quick from anxiety. Every time you see a hint of anxiety, slow down right away. Help her feel safe. Rather than punishing her behaviors, find ways to reward her. Affirming good behaviors builds confidence–the opposite of anxiety.
Less correction; more direction.
To get ahead of her behavior curve we must go from being reactive to her problems to proactive to help her past them.
If she is quick, I’d ask her for slow answers. Leading her, I’d ask for a few steps. Start at her speed and then slow your feet. If she gives a tiny hesitation, reward her generously and walk on. Ask for some long strides and then short strides. Eventually, when she is following your stride changes, ask for a halt. Ask with your exhale. Ask with your feet. Leave the lead rope hang. If she barely pauses, reward her and walk on. The next time she’ll give you more because it went well. Because she can listen to your feet better than your hands.
Be the change you want to see in your horse. If she is hot, you cool your body movements. If she is reluctant to walk, you lighten and lift your body movements. Correct yourself. Ignore what you don’t like. Reward her every try.
Do it all in slow motion. Affirm peace. Let your exhale be audible. Lead by example; keep your heart quiet, your breath deep, and your hands soft. Let there be hang time after your cues. If you don’t want her to escalate, then don’t you escalate. Be relentlessly focused and internally slow, even if you are walking quickly.
It won’t be perfect. In the beginning, it’ll be a hot mess and your only goal is to interrupt your mare’s free-fall to panic. If there is a hesitation in her anxiety, reward that.
Think of the words good girl as an affirmation of what will come, rather than a reward for a completed behavior. Eventually the two of you will fluidly shadow each other, but for now, lower your expectations. Nothing kills her try quicker than being told everything she does isn’t good enough. Humans understand that feeling, don’t we?
Reward anything that looks thoughtful. In the past, cues have escalated to punishment. She’s been trained to answer too quickly. Give her time to reason it out. Slow. Down.
Sometimes she’ll hesitate too long. She isn’t being disrespectful. I think they know when it’s been too long and sometimes do a deer-in-headlights response, frozen waiting for the inevitable punishment. On the surface, it looks like disobedience. Take a breath and change the subject. Save her from that dread; start over fresh.
Demonstrate the behavior you’d like your mare to emulate. The patience you show her today will be returned to you. At some future time, when other horses might quit or panic, she will hold strong. She’ll pay it back when it matters.
Next week I’ll write about lunging as a positive aid rather than a punishment. For now, I want to affirm the importance of positive early training.
I’m on the board of Colorado Horse Rescue Network and we had an open shelter day recently. The goal was to help people who needed to let go of their horses. Of the thirty-five horses that were relinquished, twenty-three were mares. Those numbers are common; mares outnumber geldings in rescue. It says more about humans than mares, I think.
Good training requires us to go beyond old methods and understand the value subtlety and finesse. Training is an art. Let it lift both of you.
Rule number one about horses: There will be a high learning curve. Most of us are drawn to horses because we feel some sort of connection. It doesn’t matter if we grew up with horses or only saw them in books, eventually, we find our way to a barn.
When we get there, some of us stand in silent awe and some of us are so overwhelmed by emotion that we might as well be screaming for the Beatles in 1964. It doesn’t matter where we start on that emotional continuum because as time passes, we’ll make every stop. Each of the seven deadly sins will be our own.
There is hardly a lesson where I don’t use the word continuum. In my mind, I see it as a pendulum on a clock, swinging in an arc from one extreme to the other. We are too afraid or we are too complacent. We punish too much or we sent no boundaries. We try too hard or we quit too soon. We are silent with our cues or we scream bloody murder.
Too much or too little, we understand the extreme edges of the continuum but the subtleties of the sweet spot in the middle can be hard to locate.
Humans aren’t great with nuance. We’re predators and we want what we want. Now. Our idea of leadership is to get our way and often we define success by clawing our way to money or fame. Even that isn’t enough; then we worry about how other people will judge us.
Meanwhile, horses are prey animals and that means constantly being aware of what’s happening outside their own mind and negotiating their safety. In herd life, the best leaders are the ones who keep the herd secure.
It’s right about here that I wonder for the umpteenth time, what is it about horses that draw us so strongly. It certainly isn’t our similarity.
Then, to make it all a bit more complex, not all humans are created equal. (We make laws, but it’s still true.) Some humans, predators by birth, also have the experience of being prey in our own herd. We have experienced the dark side of domination and we know that fear doesn’t equal respect. We know what it means to not trust our own kind.
When we want to escape the world, we go to the barn to find that equine connection we crave but as we begin learning horsemanship, often we’re taught to train with intimidation. The irony should not be lost on us.
This is all true before we every pick up a lead rope much less ride, and it deserves our consideration as we teeter on this continuum. Some humans have been negotiating their position in the world forever. What if that was an asset while working with horses?
Have you noticed that I’m being very careful with my pronouns? Our culture describes behaviors with a gender-related pejorative term. “Act like a man.” “Throw like a girl.”
And in an age when bullies can be mistaken for as strong leaders, being a good negotiator doesn’t have much rock star appeal.
Unless, of course, you happen to be a horse. That gift of acceptance over criticism has a huge value to a horse who’s fearful. Fear is a wild emotion that doesn’t go into a corner well. There is simply no aggressive response that works against fear. Traditional thought is to push a horse through it but no matter how exhausted a horse gets from intimidation the result is not going to be positive. Fear becomes institutionalized, not released.
Instead, let the negotiation begin. Can I ask for his eye? Good, release. May I enter his space? No? Okay, I hear you. Breathe. Step back. He looks at me like I might be unusual. I am making the middle of the continuum look attractive. I linger there, and let him take it in. Moments pass. May I come? Will you consider connecting?
Maybe he turns. His eyes go deep and dark and quietly, he offers me something indescribable. It might be his heart and the vulnerability slams me with awe. No, now especially, breathe! If a trainer feels frustration or anger, they should step back and decompress, but I do the same thing when I become besotted. For as much as I do love horses, I respect them more. Any communication that we have with runaway emotions, positive or negative, will cloud the negotiation. I want to be a place of safety, so I choose to stay emotionally level. My inner horse-crazy girl can jump up and down later.
I thrive on the creativity needed when working with horses, especially the ones who have been trained to not trust people. Some of us complain that we aren’t as brave as when we were younger. What if that’s the trade for better perception in the moment?
What if we let go of that certainty of ego and judgment and learn to honor the skill of negotiation.
Name-calling right or wrong is a superficial dead-end position to hold. Positive training means making confidence easy for a horse. That’s setting it up so you can say yes, all the time. It isn’t a lack of respect in the horse or the trainer but the exact opposite. When that mutual respect becomes a habit, it turns into trust.
Great trainers of any discipline come to the place of understanding beyond domination. Leadership is a humble service given with kindness. Security exists when both sides truly understand that for trust to exist, there is no place for intimidation.
If I were to use a gender-related pejorative term for that, I might say they train “like a girl.” In the perfect world, it would be a compliment.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
This is Andante. He likes to have a conversation at the mounting block. He wasn’t always like this. In his younger days, he was afraid of most everything. It was fair; he didn’t have a great start in life but that isn’t the important part. Back then, the mounting block wasn’t his favorite thing. Now it is.
He likes to spend a few minutes tapping it with his hoof; it makes that hollow plastic sound. He side-passes over it when asked –because he’s tall and it works. It’s a kind of groundwork that he and his rider enjoy; just a connecting time. He initiates it now and we all congratulate him. After a few minutes, he’s asked to stand still and he does.
Lately, he’s added this twist; he’s taken to doing stretches himself, at first only with his left leg, and then on request, both legs. His rider started the tapping game years ago to make the mounting block less scary and it turned into a game. It takes extra minutes in the beginning of the ride.
Before I get accused of coddling horses or training like a girl, again, I should add that Andante does challenging work, training up the dressage levels, working on light contact, pushing like a freight train, and dancing like a ballerina. I have great respect for this horse and the training he and his rider have done.
You could say these antics mean that his lesson starts late. We think he’s started teaching early. This ex-nervous horse reminds us it’s supposed to be fun because hard work and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Because riding is an art. He reminds us to stay in the present moment. The other words for that are horse time.
Our horses don’t much care about our dirty laundry or dinner plans or our riding ambitions. But we’re busy people. We want to ride. We want our hour, so we grab them out of their turnout, do a perfunctory grooming job, and pull to the arena. Then it’s hurry-time for training work crashing into horse time. Does this “Slam, bam, thank you, Ma’am” approach work well for anything of value?
(I’m going to assume that we all use mounting blocks because it’s good for horses. Look at a photo of a horse’s skeleton and it’s easy to understand why equine chiropractors say that the wither area is easy to mangle with ground mounting.)
Does your horse show any calming signals at the mounting block? Does he look away or stretch his head down. Is he fussy? Do you move the mounting block to him …more than once? Is it a place where he gets corrected three or four times before you’re even in the saddle? Is that really how you want to start? Gosh, and your ride didn’t go well?
Maybe it’s time to see your mounting block in a new light. I like to use them as a training aid. For people, mainly.
If you’re looking for a partner, whether for dressage competition or for trail riding, it starts here. Would you like a total do-over at the mounting block?
Start here: With a halter and lead rope, walk to the mounting block. The lead must stay slack. Step to the top and stand there. Breathe. Clear your mind. Lay down your thoughts and lists and expectations. Stand still and breathe some more. Let go of your excuses and apologies. Be still mentally and watch your horse take a new interest in you. Then step back to the ground and give yourself a treat. Nice job of changing yourself. Yes, it’s just a start but this is how training works.
Go to the arena and this time, un-click the lead. Let your horse run and play. Cheer him on. Cue canters and trots by doing them yourself. Laugh. Remember why you love horses. Then take him back to the barn and curry him till he shines. Now you have his attention.
Go to the arena and stand on the mounting block and do some light lunging. You’ll notice you can’t move your feet much while standing there. Good, it will require smaller cues. Ask for different gaits and reverses. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen, and back to the barn. Confuse him with short work sessions.
Eventually, ask for walk/halt transitions. Take your time, let him think. Trust his answer and find an even better, smaller cue. Let time pass in quiet conversation. If he’s doing halts, in a small circle, both directions around the block, you’re almost there.
The lead is still loose and his head has forgotten how much it hated being pulled on. It’s a miracle. At some point of his choosing, he’ll step almost to the perfect spot to mount and halt. Almost but not quite. Here is a chance to be generous. Training amounts to successive approximation. Call it good, reward him, and go back to the barn. Yay for you. You didn’t nag on toward your idea of perfection while teaching him he’s never good enough. Instead, he remembers standing there in the right place with you being happy about it. Win.
The next time, he comes to the spot sooner and you spend a ridiculous amount of time standing on the block, scratching and rubbing his back and neck. Continue until he forgets he had anxiety at the mounting block. Until he wonders if you’ve taken a mail order course in faith healing. Until he thinks good things happen at the mounting block and he pulls toward the arena.
Reward your horse’s stillness with your own. Then congratulate your horse on teaching you patience.
In the perfect world, this work starts with yearlings, long before saddles and training. In the perfect world, the mounting block is an island of peace and safety in a chaotic world. Let it be a sacred place.
Cultivate the idea that the more you and your horse are together mentally on the ground, the better you will be in the saddle. That positive training starts with your mental state. Make your mind a place your horse wants to spend time. When he’s comfortable with that, he’ll invite you into his.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
I’ll start with the bad news. For those of us who grew up cantering in the living room and then one day heard the term “natural horsemanship” and thought it meant we could be a horse in a real herd, I have some lousy-bad news:
There will never be a day when a horse looks at a human and thinks they see a horse. Give it up. It was just a sales pitch for something else entirely. You don’t get to be a horse. Sorry.
The good news is that if we become a slightly more well-mannered version of ourselves and listen in their language, horses will return an in-the-moment relationship so intense, intelligent, and profound, that for the first time in your life, you won’t mind not being a horse.
I’ve written about calming signals since 2014. Calming signals are subtle body messages that horses use to let us know they feel anxiety or conflict; that they are no threat and we don’t need to act aggressively. The signal demonstrates desired behavior from us at the same time. He might look away, stretching his head down as a way of asking us to relax and go slow.
Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. We tend to be too loud and bossy.
First, think of the barn as a foreign country. Then decide what kind of tourist you want to be. You can play the part of a privileged elitist throwing alms to the poor or a peace-maker negotiating with heads of state. It’s up to you but you don’t own this place. You are a visitor. Remember your manners.
First, clean yourself up. Take this part very seriously. No, they don’t care what you wear but clean your mind up. Excuse your emotions, you won’t need them. Same with expectations and plans; horses don’t think about the future. You’re the only part of the interchange you can control, so take your time. Square your shoulders and balance your thoughts. Every time you want to talk, breathe instead. Get comfortable with silence. Learn to love the peace in waiting because it’s real.
If quieting your mind is hard for you, consider a yoga or meditation practice. Do it for your horse. If your emotions rule your life, you’re in overwhelm and horses don’t like that. Sure, you can use your horse as a therapist but why would you want to put those feelings of pain and insecurity on him? (Says the woman who literally went for couple’s therapy to talk about her horse.)
Warm up your senses. Tune your eyes to small things. Listen to your surroundings and slow down your perception of time so that you can be fully present. Each of their senses is more acute than ours so we need to start by being sure we are using the marginal senses that we do have to their full potential.
Think more awareness and less intellect. If you wonder if a response is a coincidence or that you might have imagined it, then believe it was real. With your limited senses, it’s probably true.
At the same time, be strict not to draw human conclusions. A horse might be giving you welcoming signals but doesn’t mean that he’s a sweetheart or a caregiver or a Zen master. Just let him be a horse.
You’ll need to learn their language. You probably know the swear words: pinned ears, bared teeth, the threat to kick. We can avoid those by listening sooner, to the smaller messages. Calming signals include looking away, narrowing eyes, stretching his neck to rub his nose on his leg or graze when he isn’t hungry. Signals are as varied as there are unique individuals and there will never be a precise translation.
How to answer back is simple. You let your body demonstrate calm. You breathe. You balance and wait. You put your emotions on him but in a good way. You let him feel safe.
Give him a release by stepping out of his space. Let him know that you heard him, that you understand that he’s feeling anxiety and you respect that. Step back. Look for a release in his jaw and mouth, for soft eyes and a relaxed poll.
Nothing good is learned through fear, so let the anxiety pass before doing more. Let him assimilate what happened. Let it rest awhile. Ask again, but discipline yourself to ask smaller this time.
If he swings his head back toward you, he’s volunteering. It’s what you want; give him the reward that he wants. You resist the desire to hug him and babytalk. Instead, give him his space and exhale. You’re training him to trust himself. He’s been heard. Let him rest in that confidence.
Someone asked me this week, after a particularly communicative session with her horse, “Does it feel as good to them as it does to us?” In my experience, some horses are slow to start. It’s as if they haven’t been listened to for so long that they’ve given up. Others yell hysterically for the same reason. Hold steady to the calm and peacefully persist.
Once it all shakes out and they trust that line of communication, they become chatterboxes, always mumbling a running commentary. Horses constantly interrupt me in lessons to say the exact thing I’m trying to articulate. I’m humbled by their brevity.
Do I think it feels as good to them as it does to us? No. I think it feels even better. Equality is the ultimate freedom.
Donkey calming signals are like horse’s, but longears are smarter and hence, more subtle. Are you good enough for donkeys? There’s one calming signal that donkeys are particularly famous for using. We call it being stubborn, but I think they see it as not giving in to loud-mouth idiots who don’t take time to listen. It certainly doesn’t take a donkey more time to answer. They just resent being hurried.
What would happen if humans adopted that particular donkey calming signal? What if we got stubborn about going slow? Stubborn about listening and not fighting? Stubborn about whispering because we’re predators and lucky that horses even consider partnering with us in the first place.
Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. Because we are an unpredictable war-like species.
This week I’m answering a question: A rider, who was really enjoying her calming signals work, emailed a question about what to do about an aggressive horse. The rider said that a fancy show mare had come to her barn temporarily and boarders had been told that the mare was fine with horses but not humans; they were warned to not “get in her face.”
Our rider was leading her horse in around suppertime and that mare was guarding the alley to the gate. The mare tried to get between them, the rider reached out for her horse, and after a couple of warnings from the mare, and the she grabbed the rider’s wrist in her teeth and pinned her ears. She could have done much worse.
Our rider, demonstrating un-common sense, dropped the rope, retreated, and took her horse out another gate. The right answer because she was in close quarters and it wasn’t her horse. She said that several other boarders offered to help bring her mare next time, and show her how to handle this type of situation. (She wasn’t comfortable with their advice… smart decision.)
She added that a few days later, while being led into the barn, the mare attacked a barn-worker who escaped by locking herself in a stall, until the mare eventually sauntered into her own stall. (Vindicated, the rider would still like to know how to handle this kind of horse, in this type of situation.)
Disclaimer: I would be foolish to give advice when I can’t literally see the horse; I never substitute someone else’s eyes for mine because I usually see the situation differently. And I think that’s what people want from me. That said, I’m thrilled that no one got hurt… and here goes…
Foremost, is the mare sound? Her health must be the first question. Being a show horse is a stressful life and she’s moved to a new barn. Does she have ulcers? Change is harder on them than we understand. If she is acting like a stallion, could she have reproductive issues? Are her hormones out of control? Ovarian cysts are common and under-diagnosed. It could be her teeth or a million other things. My first stop would be with the vet, and in the meantime, rather than warning the boarders, the barn owner shouldn’t turn the mare out with other horses, for everyone’s safety.
I’d bet my truck this mare’s in pain, but let’s pretend the vet clears her and said her issues aren’t physically based. Now what?
Of course, you’ll get advice from Railbirds and testosterone-junkies of both sexes, but do not take it. Too many times, a self-appointed horse expert thinks all the horse needs is to be shown who’s boss. And about the time two or three “experts” have had a shot at her and failed, she is worse than when she started. Sounds like this mare may have had a dose of that already.
Aggressive trainers and riders count on getting to a place where their dominating aids and loud emotions intimidate a horse into playing dead. The other term for that is shut-down. The horse looks like teacher’s pet but with flat black eyes. Stoic horses pull inside themselves for a long as they can.
But not all horses are stoic. Some are more expressive, with a bold self-confidence and a fearless heart. The kind of horse who will not be bowed. She proudly looks you in the eye, refuses to submit, and holds her ground. Partnering with a horse who requires a human to be their equal is an amazing opportunity, but most humans take the low road and start a brutal physical battle. Just one reason that horses could think that we’re an unpredictable war-like species.
I don’t know this mare; I do know that horses reflect our emotions sometimes, and I know that a horse trained with fear is not dependable. I also know that some horses were never meant to belong to amateur owners –through no one’s fault.
Our rider said the mare gave her a couple of hints but she didn’t take them. My guess is that it wasn’t the first time. But that’s all history. What about now?
This is where I remind you that positive training isn’t just a lily-livered game for geriatric geldings on sunny afternoons. It isn’t just for decrepit rescue horses or mild-mannered kind souls. Reactive horses who get in trouble need it more than all the “good” horses combined.
Now, hope the owner hires a competent trainer; someone who understands behavior, human and horse, and sees the big picture. Then, grab a beer. The mare didn’t get this way in a day. We know this isn’t normal behavior. And we know that she gave calming signals that were not understood. We know that even if she’s an alpha mare, she deserved better.
If she came here, I’d take her back to the beginning. Listening to her calming signals, I might ask quietly for just one step. If she looks away, a calming signal, I’ll take a breath. Then I’ll ask quieter. If I can tell she considers doing it, I’ll exhale and step back. In the process of successive approximation, I’ll gradually ask for more, but I’ll be slow because she’s lost trust. I’ll look past her anger and talk to her anxiety.
Don’t misunderstand. I don’t baby talk and coo. I will use strong body language, I will control my emotions. I won’t attack her space, just as I will be very clear about my own. I will not let my guard down for a moment, but I’ll have a cool exterior. It will require perception, impeccable timing, and precise response. I won’t be perfect; it’ll be a work in progress because she will require my very best work and I’ll thank her for that. I’ll train her “respect” by showing her consistency and focus. I’ll let her know that I heard her loud and clear. Then I’ll encourage her to quietly continue the conversation.
I will always believe that it’s humans, (a war-like species,) who do not understand what respect means. When I see humans teach “respect” by demonstrating brutality, to animals or other humans, respect is the last word that comes to my mind. It might be the only thing that this mare and I agree on in the beginning.
What should the rider have done in this situation? Get you and your horse out safely. Good. Don’t encourage people to try to dominate her; it hasn’t worked in the past and she doesn’t belong to you. Good again, you did the right thing. Then hope that her owner doesn’t hire a bully with a grudge. Because this is a smart mare with a long memory, and she doesn’t suffer fools.
This is our mantra. Repeat after me: I’m only human. I’ll try to do better.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
We’re breaking in a new farrier here at Infinity Farm. The new guy is soft-spoken, uses a nice pink hoof-stand, and has an easy laugh that the mares like. We’re like any other herd. We’ve got some quirks. Not all of us got a great introduction to humans.
The farrier and I trim our way through the pens. The geldings are dependable and the mares tolerant. Lilith, the carbon-dated donkey, turns to face us, lifts her nose level with her ears, and brays like a fog horn. Her feet are fine this visit and we’re all relieved.
Bhim’s next. He came here from a rescue for training a few years back and I’m still working on it. I consider him a bit complicated. He considers me expendable. The farrier waits while I move forward with Bhim’s halter. We do a slow-motion dance; two steps this way, a dramatic pause and our shoulders turn. I know we must agree on this part. He continues to think I might go nuts. I continue to out-wait his low opinion of humans. A few more steps of the dance, slow and deliberate, and the halter is on. We walk back to the farrier who says, “Will you teach all my mini clients to do that?”
Funny you should mention that –there’s little I like to train more. I love a nuanced greeting, a dance of equals, each of us offering something positive. Haltering Bhim is a process. But that’s true for all horses.
Sometimes we chase them till they’re out of breath, the predator way. Sometimes we coyote-coax them with treats. Sometimes, (my least favorite), we march right up, pull the halter on snug, and pull them away from breakfast.
In each of these examples, the horses were giving calming signals. In each example, the horses were speaking more eloquently than their human.
A Calming Signal is the subtle language of horses. It’s a peaceful message to let us know they feel us there, disturbing the Zen, and they are no threat to us. We usually answer by letting them know we are an unpredictable war-like species.
Our haltering method is usually a complacent habit, even with hard to catch horses, and not something we think about much. At the same time, that initial moment of greeting creates a first impression that a horse remembers.
Let me put it another way: How do you like your significant other to greet you? By threatening or bribing or just grabbing you by the hair and pulling you along? It’s no surprise when a horse isn’t responsive in the saddle if we’ve already let them know that we’re lousy communicators on the ground.
How a horse greets us is his honest expression and if we mistake that for disobedience or stupidity or laziness, we are the ones with the problem.
Reset: Complacency is your enemy. It makes you dull-headed and lead-footed… not traits horses appreciate, but more than that, you’re missing the fun.
Before entering the pen or stall, remind yourself of the wild luck and hard work that put you in front of this gate. Take a breath and soften your gaze. Check yourself for anxiety or expectations. Use your peripheral vision and listen to your surroundings. When you’re presentable, enter the pen and stop.
Don’t “hide” your halter behind your back, horses see that as the first sign something weird is going on. If your horse moves away, you’ve got some work to do. If your horse runs up to mug you for treats, same thing.
It’s that stoic horse who stands where he is with his eyes half-closed that is the most interesting to me. Does he pretend you aren’t there? Or is he preparing for a loud advance?
Take just a step or two toward him and say whatever you want because words don’t matter. Ask for his eye. Think of it as a greeting more eloquent that words. Ask with your eye and breathe. If he moves away, know that you were too loud. Or it might be that your history is too loud. If he doesn’t acknowledge it at all, know he heard you and then ask even smaller.
If you want to know how you could possibly ask smaller than your eye looking at his eye, then you’re on the right path.
Reset your previous reset: We are predators by nature. In comparison to horses, we are loud and obnoxious by accident of birth. Even when we think we’re quiet, we roar. Take another breath and empty your mind of the loud jangle of expectations. Quiet the tick-tick-tick of your mental stopwatch. Let your shoulders drop the weight of needing to get it right all the time. Pooch out your belly and trust the ground to hold you.
Then ask for his eye in a lackadaisical way, because you are pretending to be free of expectation. If your horse flicks an ear or blinks an eye, that’s your reward. You receive this gift without judgment about its size or expense because you are an adult who’s above that kind of spoiled-child behavior. Exhale and let him know that you heard him. Say thank you with a pause of time.
About now, your horse looks right at you. Take another breath and maybe a small step sideways. The dance starts with a subtle invitation. Perhaps he moves a hind leg to re-position himself and so perhaps you take a step back this time. Across the distance of the pen, he looks at you with new eyes, slightly shifting his weight, and pondering the possibility…
The halter was a prop. Something real just happened; he volunteered to meet you in the middle. The world has shifted. Say Good Boy and let him watch you leave the pen.
Then feel your reward. It’s so light, you could be imagining it. If you tried to clutch at it, it would skitter away like seeds from the head of a dandelion. So, you let it be. The best things grow, not with force, but with freedom. It’s an invitation to dance beyond ropes and words, and maybe even gravity.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm