Trust: A Suspension of Disbelief.

You love horses. No, you really, really love horses. Because they are so amazing. We share videos of blind horses cared for by sighted ones. Ponies who tolerate wild kids and horses fulfilling last wishes of our own elders with gentle kindness. There are brilliant competitors dancing and racehorses running on heart. Trail horses who carry us to peace of mind. And don’t forget mules fighting coyotes. We marvel at their intelligence and courage. Yay, Equines!

Then there’s a moment that happens. The instant when that “magical” horse does some small movement that looks normal, like something your horse does. Or the instant that your horse takes a couple of steps of piaffe for the fun of it. Or your horse does a beautiful liberty movement that you only notice you asked for in hindsight. It’s noticeable. Maybe not identical but so close. The lights and mirrors go black and you have an inkling that your horse could do the same thing that previously looked like magic. And that what looked like magic was just being a horse.

It’s a great moment. The line between magic and normal needs to be blurred. Horses are much more than beasts of burden. At the same time, believing some horses are mythical creatures with magical powers does a disservice to rescue horses and grade horses and most likely, the horse in your own barn.

I think the biggest challenge facing most horses is our own mental limitation on what we think they are capable of understanding. We have an innate us/them mentality. We think that other horses achieve a particular behavior because of some intangible circumstances not available to the average horse and rider. Just not true.

But how much do we actually believe in their intelligence? Their ability to understand what’s going on? How often do we act like they need training for common sense, and in that moment, seek to dumb horses down?

Some of it boils down to a question of trust, but when we think about trusting our horses, it usually involves our physical safety. We trust them to clear a jump, to come back after a gallop; we aspire to trust their responsiveness in some way we call normal.

Say you’re asking for a simple in-hand obstacle like stepping onto a tarp on the ground. If he is standing with his hooves right next to it, do you feel you need to do more to explain, like lead him or cluck to him or teach it as if he’s never seen it? Or do you trust that he recognizes the obvious?

Think of all the practical but lame reminders we give teenagers, like to take a coat along. Of course, they roll their eyes. It’s clear we don’t trust them to come in out of the rain. You can say you’re just being helpful, but the other side of that states a lack of trust that they can manage the basics and that’s a horrible confidence builder. Would teens be different if we trusted they’d figure it out without us belaboring the obvious?

I recently read a brilliant article that said by demonstrating things to kids instead of letting them figure it out, we actually show them that we are capable, and they aren’t. In other words, constantly bailing kids out of their situation creates a kind of learned helplessness –the opposite of our intended goal.

Horses are no different. The chronic habit of humans re-training or over-cueing is a kind of lack of trust in our horse’s intellect.

The idea of allowing a horse autonomy, the freedom to volunteer, requires a suspension of disbelief. It means that you extend trust… not that they won’t hurt you but trust that they are smart and can answer the question. Giving the cue louder doesn’t make it more understandable. It just adds more anxiety. Ask quietly, with confidence in both of you. Then rather than doing the task, give him the time and support to figure it out. You get to pick the topic and he gets to pick the time.

Maybe trust is another word for patience.

If you believe that horses are sentient, then I challenge you to communicate with him that way. Mentor with your body, notice your own energy. Suggest rather than demand. And you know you should be breathing more.

Do your cues take on the urgency and size of semaphore signals on an aircraft carrier? Maybe a little less training enthusiasm and a little more confidence in your own ability and your horse’s desire to align with your intention. Let it be easier.

It’s possible they won’t give us the answer we want immediately. It might be confusion or a lack of confidence but don’t give into doubt. It’s up to us to find a quiet way to ask, or cut the task into smaller pieces and be grateful for every tiny effort. Successive approximation.

In that quiet moment, can you see a small change in his eye? Does his poll soften? In the past you may have thought he was dawdling or resisting the cue, but looking closer now, do see his intelligence? Reward that; connect with the action of him using his mind.

How horses and riders get stuck in the same place for long periods of time is that we don’t hold ourselves to conscious creativity in our equine conversations. We don’t progress because we unconsciously become repetitive naggers instead of scintillating conversationalists. If we believe that horses can read our minds in other situations, why would we have to resort to semaphore cues for something obvious and easy?

Trust your horse can a true partner and not a minion. Let him rise to the occasion and feel pride in himself. Trust his intelligence because his species has survived for thousands of years. Celebrate that intellect as a thing that you both share.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
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. 

Circles: A Soft Bend

I’d led a sheltered life. I was thirty years old before I visited my first Saddlebred barn. I was just tagging along with a friend, standing flat-footed in the aisle, when I heard a yell, followed by a loud rattling noise. At the far end of an extremely long barn aisle, a tall horse with wide eyes was jangling toward me with a rider up. I backed against a stall as the noise got louder.  He flew past me, knees high and chains clanging in a gait something like a trot.

They pulled up at the other far end of the aisle, awkwardly turned around and clip-clopped a walk back toward us, stilted and sweating. The rider stopped and exchanged greetings with my friend, while I did a squint-eyed stare at the gelding’s long hooves –wedged, weighted, and screwed together with metal strapping.

It was a lot to take in; I must have looked like a gaped-mouth tourist. Back in the truck, I grilled my friend who explained that they sprinted the horses up and down their barn aisles, keeping their horses straight because riding in circles “ruined horses.”

Do you know the good reasons to circle a horse? No extremes, I don’t mean tiny circles at a dead run, but the idea of walking or trotting a large arc? Imagine your horse’s barrel; the inside ribs should compress a bit while the outside ribs stretch. Most of us will say that our horses are stiff one way and this is the peaceful antidote. It’s common sense to want your horse supple and strong.

Here is the secret to riding a circle: Start by visualizing a circle on the ground. Then cut the circle into quarters and ride it one-quarter at a time. It’s a way of staying fresh and mentally in the moment. If you want, count the steps in each quarter. Let the strides stay regular and keep your shoulders at the angle you want your horse’s shoulder to be.

Warning: the more you think you need to steer with reins, the more “creative” your circle will be. Sometimes from the ground, I feel a need to clarify by saying round circle as a reminder.

Yes, horses have a stiff side in the beginning but the more you pull that side to make them bend, the more things come apart; shoulders dropping in all directions, over-correcting with reins, tense eyebrows and set jaws on riders, and confused ears on your horse. Scratch his withers for tolerating you.

Start again, care more about the track you see on the ground than the bend of your horse’s neck. Ride that track. Sit squarely in the saddle and turn your waist, shoulders to the arc of the circle, one-quarter at a time. Ride with an energetic seat and legs, remember? And breathe. If that doesn’t help your circle, don’t be shy. Put some cones out. This is important for your horse.

Inside leg to outside rein. 

It’s an imaginary interior line from your horse’s armpit (where your foot is) to his outside shoulder. Ignore his head for now. Every time his barrel sways to the outside, your calf will pulse lightly. No, lightly! Let it feel like a dancing cheek to cheek. The concept of bend must be in the ribs, meaning the whole body, as opposed to cranking his neck to the side.

Keep pulsing along at the walk and look down. If you are going his soft way, usually to the left, you will notice your inside rein slack as he softens to your gentle inside calf muscle. You want to see his withers being gently and rhythmically massaged to the outside of the circle. You want that outside arc of his body as sweet as a crescent moon, as soft as a peach.

After a while, reverse direction. He might counter bend a bit. Keep the inside leg massaging away but lower your expectations. It takes a good while; you can’t make muscles release. Let your horse do that part. Remind yourself that a counter-bend isn’t a disobedience; it’s literally an under-developed muscle; his withers need time. Horses are born this way and if you create more resistance while asking him to bend his stiff way, that does defeat the purpose. Think long neck. Think of him stretching nose to tail. Pass the time breathing.

Remind yourself that curving or walking in an arc is a calming signal for a reason. This flexing of the horse’s ribcage relaxes them. Wait for him to tell you it’s working. He might blow out a snort, or lick and chew. Maybe his neck will get longer, maybe his stride will improve, his inside leg energized by your inside pulsing calf. These are all right answers. Say, Good Boy.

Once the circles are good, try a spiral. Start with a 20-meter circle, carve it smaller with your outside leg pulsing (in rhythm as his barrel swings to the inside to move smaller) as you turn your waist a bit more, to a 15-meter circle, and adding energy to your sit bones, even smaller to a 10-meter circle. Once there, use your inside leg to gradually move out to 20-meters again.

To begin just do a smaller circle inside of a larger one. Let this spiral have a chance to blossom as your horse gets more supple. If you are on the trail, plan a path using huge half-circle arcs instead of straight lines. Ride with your legs. Ask for slow, long strides, giving your horse time to step under. Stay mentally engaged; ride with energy and practice your own internal focus by feeling each step. Know that he is gaining strength from the inside out. Be patient. Think of coiling the spring, think T’ai Chi for horses.

If you find circles boring, reconsider. We don’t ride them to please judges. There’s a much better reason than that: Supple Bend Equals Longevity.

Is there a better reason?

….

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
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. 

Riding the Middle: My Horse is Lazy.

My horse is lazy. He won’t go forward. He doesn’t listen to my legs no matter what. Do I need spurs?

Warning: Predictable answer ahead.

(First and always, is your horse sound? Ulcers maybe? Don’t assume he’s okay, check.)

When I hear this human question, I wonder what the horse would ask in the same situation. Is the word lazy even in their vocabulary? I mention this because understanding how horses think is much more important than getting our way.

If I had to guess, I’d think the horse was shut down. Here’s my equine CSI logic: The horse is a stoic horse. I know this because a more reactive horse would have bucked his rider off by now. Excessive kicking doesn’t go over well with a horse who gets aggravated easily.

Stoic horses are every bit as intelligent and sensitive as a reactive horse. They’re just quiet, keeping their own best council. Think introvert, in human terms. Stoic horses are conflict avoidant, retreating inside and trying to be invisible. Like me around enthusiastic football fans.

Humans tend to think horses can’t hear them, even knowing that each one of his senses is more acute than ours. So, we cue again, louder this time. Or we just nag on with our legs banging their sides each stride. But the more you cue a stoic horse, the more he crouches inside of himself. *Light bulb moment in understanding horses: Less is more.*

If your horse has a problem, look for a resolution in yourself.

I don’t mean some esoteric theory about soulmates or an obscure psychological reasoning from possible experiences in his past or even a dispassionate reciting of training aids as described on any of two million articles online. Those are intellectual activities.

Your horse lives in the moment and to help him, you must escape your over-thinking intellectual mind and join him in the NOW. Tune in to your senses. What do you literally feel?

If you are timid in the saddle or if you’re not warmed up yet, your thighs might be tight. That means that you are suspended above the saddle. Breathe, imagine an egg under your knee, and let your sit-bones settle. A deep seat makes for a connected ride. Not to mention, mounted thigh-master exercises are frowned on by horses.

While you’re at it, if his poll is tight, do a slow side-to-side neck roll. If he is clamped on the bit, relax your jaw. Once your body is looser see how your horse has changed. Then walk a while longer and let what you thought was relaxed… relax some more.

Next, feel your energy level. The rule of thumb is that if your brain is working, your body has gone still, most notably your seat. And that is, after all, the cue to halt. A busy brain can shut a horse down. Too much mental chatter scrutinizing what’s happening is not the same thing as feeling it.

See how easy it was to distract you from your energy? I just chattered about brains and your brain couldn’t resist hearing its own name. This what your brain does when you ride. Intellect isn’t energy. It distracts you from feeling. Intellect is the enemy of art.  Brains think the only worthwhile activity is thinking. Refuse to engage.

Energy is something separate from intellect. It’s tuning into your body and listening. It’s cultivating an awareness of your muscles and joints, and even your arthritis and old injuries, and then empowering yourself to go beyond. Riding well requires not just an awareness of your body position but also the ability to communicate eloquence in its movement. It’s the same thing that makes you gasp when you see a horse gallop in slow motion.

Think of your energy level as a dial that you can adjust. If your horse doesn’t have much energy, turns yours up. Do more than breathe, actually smell the air. If you’re on the ground, pick up your step, get happy. If you’re mounted, fill your lungs and feel your shoulders go broad. Let the sun warm your chest.

Now feel where your body resists the movement of your horse. The worst-case example of this would be a rider who braces their legs stiff at the trot, riding like a bundle of two-by-four lumber. No, you don’t ride that way, but can you feel small places where you could be resisting your horse’s forward motion?

Does your lower back release to the movement of your horse’s back? If not, you’re giving a constant cue to slow down. If your thighs are tense that counts as a half halt. Are your hands giving or do they drag like a parking brake? And most common, if your intellect kicks in when you notice that your horse isn’t doing what you want, does your seat stop following your horse entirely?

Yes, it’s natural for us but also not fair to complain that your horse is lazy if you’re unable to maintain your energy consistently… your horse would like you to know.

Step one is to notice when it happens. You can’t change things that you aren’t aware of. To begin, go inside your body and feel the ride. In dressage, we ride the inside of the horse and we do that from deep inside of ourselves. We work to train ourselves not lose our rhythm to external distractions, even those we make up in our own mind. Rhythm is the foundation of all good with horses.

The challenge of improving your riding, if you are a long-term novice who wants to progress, is that there are usually fairly small things working against you that you might not be aware of. This is where having a coach is really helpful but you will need to develop an awareness of your own energy and internal movements.

The horse world is a place of extremes. Extreme training, extreme abuse, and extreme love, swinging like a pendulum. Learning isn’t a linear path but more of a spherical realization.

Finding balance for you and your horse in the middle of this chaos is an extraordinary feat. Riding the Middle is the path from over-cued but under-inspired to relaxed and forward brilliance.

Kick less, dance more.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Check out our clinic schedule. 2018 is filling quickly; if you would like to host a clinic or attend one, please contact me here.

 

 

Too Much Love: Is it Partnership?

Last week I answered a reader question about Making War on Horses and it got a predictably positive reception. It’s preaching to the choir for my readers. This week’s question is the flip-side of that last one, and a bit more challenging.

By reader request:

“I still have questions about how to express love to a horse where it feels good to both you and the horse. I know now for them it is a lot about being calm and not having busy energy in their presence, and sometimes not much touching, while for most humans it’s about petting, sweet talking and getting close. Geez…..seems pretty polar opposite.”

Sigh; a question that I want to answer with a question: Why is it such a big deal to us? Why must we express our love to horses in such noisy needy ways? Tell the truth. Doesn’t it seem a bit desperate sometimes?

We approach loving horses a little like a bowling ball approaches a triangle of pins.

It’s like we’re awkward insecure teenagers who want to show the world we can get a date. We coo baby-talk, manipulate them with treats, and find that itchy spot so we can make them make faces. Perish the thought that a horse might not want our white-hot affection; if he even feigns interest, we pounce. We cannot keep our hands (emotions) to ourselves.

I’ve said it before; the thing I hate about horses, other than their tiny feet and frail digestive systems, is that their best reward is a release –our least favorite thing. It’s the polar opposite mentioned in the question. I hate that moving out of their space is a reward so much that I ask horses to prove it a few dozen times a day. They happily oblige.

Look at it this way. If you were angry or frustrated with your horse, it would make good sense to take those big ugly feelings and back away. There’s no room for anger in training. Is it possible that when our feelings of love and equine addiction become overwhelming, we should do the same?

I’ll speak for myself. Sometimes I’ll be working with someone’s horse in a lesson or clinic, and he will do something that’s just spectacular. I’ll be gobsmacked; his behavior just pours gasoline on my burning heart. The reason to step back, exhale, and murmur “good” in a moment like this is that my emotional love-fit is as selfish as a temper tantrum would be. It’s all about me and I’m the one always lipping off about being an advocate for horses.

Or more importantly, I want to give my horse time to process what has just gone so well, so I step back or get very still, and let it be about him. I give him time. I shut up.

And I remember an old self-help book by Gary Chapman, The 5 Love Languages. Back in the day, I hated his excruciating explanation of why, if you really wanted your lover to give you flowers but instead they changed the oil in your truck, it was the same thing. In other words, an act of service is a gift of love, even if it doesn’t smell that way. It followed, if you wanted someone to feel your love, you should express it unselfishly, in a way they understood. It’s an evolved concept if you lean toward immaturity and really want the damn roses.

I’m a horse trainer but the truth is that I’m a couples therapist. I know a pretty fair amount about riding and training, but more often, I translate language between humans and horses, trying to iron out misunderstandings.

Horses do not thrive on drama. Love and anxiety are contradictions to a horse. I wish humans didn’t equate the two either. Emotional runaways, whether it’s anger or affection or even extreme confusion, aren’t positive input.

I don’t want to be a killjoy. I love a horse hug as much as anyone but more than that, I care that he feels confident and peaceful. Safety means more a horse than our undying chatter about love.

If it’s one of those days when a sideways look might reduce you to tears, consider loving your horse enough to stay away. Just because we feel better around a horse doesn’t mean it’s our right to dump our hard feelings on them.

The most common miscommunication I see between horses and riders is our apparent unwillingness to recognize anxiety. Years ago, looking at a horse for a client, the mare’s face showed every painful ulcer symptom I know and the sellers stood around laughing about how she liked to make “cute faces.” Worse yet, we commonly mistake signs of anxiety for affection and end up encouraging their anxiety.

How to tell if your love language is good for your horse? Quiet your mind. No, really. Then be honest and look deeper than what you want to see. Are his eyes soft? His face smooth? Does he show peace? It’s a lot less romantic than your horse mugging you but love shouldn’t look like insecurity.

How to let your horse know you love him? Develop a quiet mind. Give him a release but then pause. Wait for him to answer. It might be closing his eyes or licking. The huge calming signal response is a stretch and a blow. If you love him, give him time and space. Show him that respect.

Want to know my worst fear about my blog? Because I don’t believe in domination training, I fear that my message will be misconstrued to mean don’t ride, don’t ask for improvement, and just generally, let your horse walk all over you and call it love. Humans are such extremists; swinging the pendulum from one extreme to the far other is equal dysfunction.

I want clients to Ride the Middle. To have polite and complicated conversations about willing responses, balanced transitions, and eventually the weirdness of half-pass. Conversations that involve getting one good step, laughing, and taking a break. Conversations without blame, where we ask for the best of each other. The very best.

It isn’t just that we train performance horses, but we train in such a way that horses volunteer, feeling strong and confident. That’s love in action.

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Solstice in Scotland: We’re in process of planning a series of clinics in June 2018. If you would like to host a clinic or attend a clinic, please contact me here.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Making War on Horses: Is it Leadership?

By reader request:

“Horses need a dominant leader; you have to make him respect you.” “You can’t let him get away with that.” “Kick him; make him do it right now or you’ll ruin him forever.” “He’s making a fool out of you –show him who’s boss.” “You can’t let him win!” Oh yes, and this one: “I break young horses.”

A few weeks ago, a client said something that stopped me in my tracks. We’d been working on re-habbing her new gelding who had nothing short of PTSD. Over the weeks, he was slowly beginning to trust again. She reflected, “He had a trainer like I had a father.”

In a blink, I was fifteen, standing under a tree with my father, who was spitting mad at me. My filly was nervous about pavement and he thought I’d been too slow coaxing her to step on it. Now it was his turn and he was going to teach her to tie. He snubbed her to the tree, spooked her to sit back, and then hit her on the back of her skull with a two by four. I can still see her quivering, trying to stay on her feet.

These were common training practices in our area, for horses and kids. He just followed tradition. My grandfather was a horse trader and a hard taskmaster. My father grew up working horses and farming with teams of mules who (he said) wouldn’t work if you didn’t beat them. And me, his daughter-when-he-wanted-a-son, might have been the first one in the family to love horses. Imagine his disappointment.

Truth: Not only do you not have to win every fight; it isn’t even a war.

An over-simplified history of humans and horses: Once upon a time there was a culture who saw the world in terms of art and music. Xenophon, a 430 B.C. Greek soldier/philosopher said, “For what the horse does under compulsion … is done without understanding and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.” At the same time, the other dominant culture was warlike. The Romans drugged their horses and rode them into battle.

Nothing has changed. 

We’ve always had these two approaches to training horses, raising kids, and generally doing business. It can feel oppositional; men against women, old against young, science-based against self-taught, and since being called a “tree hugger,” it even feels political.

The most common thing I hear from riders about positive training isn’t that it works, although it does. Most riders say they were taught harsh habits but it never felt right. That being aggressive with horses was never comfortable but it was required by others. I can understand that. Standing against my father was tough.

Years ago, I read a scientific paper that described the physical reasons for why a horse can’t learn when he’s afraid. I held it as sacred proof and quoted it to prove my point about training with kindness.

But that was before a few years of working with various rescue horses, and horses who had been flunked out by other trainers, and the saddest, brilliant young horses who got pushed too fast. Horses who have struggled with violent leadership will be the first to tell you that they learn plenty when they’re afraid. But none of it good.

It makes sense; lots of us have tolerated harsh criticism from family for decades. Some of us rebel and never show the “respect” demanded of us. Some of us just shut down, our dreams broken and our self-worth destroyed. Just like horses.

Compassionate training can get some catcalls. I’ve certainly been criticized for training like a girl. There is that sour feeling that hangs in the air implying that we are cowards. That we just don’t have the guts to break a horse. We’re too weak to win the fight with a horse and too scared to even take the bait to fight the human taunting you. That this touchy-feely training is trash that goes against herd dominance theory.

The worst? I saw a video of a rider on her young horse. She was trying mounted shooting and her horse was confused and extremely frightened. Her “friends” cheered her on, urging her to fight him through it. The rider kept kicking, jerking the reins, and shooting her gun. The more confused her horse was, the more they yelled to encourage her to keep after him. It felt like a death-fight at a Roman Colosseum.

Readers also ask me how to deal with rail-birds who tell them they aren’t tough enough on their horses. It’s a good question. How do you defend compassion in the face of criticism? Why is there so much peer pressure to dominate horses? Do the intimidation tactics that they use on their horses work on you, too?

I notice it’s as hard to stand up to bullying as it ever was.

Start here: The FBI raised animal cruelty up to a Class A felony, with murder and arson. Pause. Think about that. It isn’t that the FBI thinks kittens and foals are cute. Statistics show a majority of violent crime begins with animal abuse.

After my father passed, my mother confided that she was always afraid that he might seriously hurt one of us kids. It almost felt good to have our family tradition acknowledged.

This might not be what you expected to hear about the “you can’t let him win” philosophy. It’s a topic that I take very seriously. I’ve certainly seen humans declare war, claim dominance using weapons –sticks, whips, and spurs. Only to run horses in circles until they shut down or cripple themselves. And if cruelty was limited to barns, as much as I love horses, I’d be happy with that. But it’s a topic that reflects more about who we are than we like to admit.

Humans are born predators. We make war but we are also capable of great acts of heart. How we deal with horses, dogs, and even children give us a chance to ask ourselves the hard questions.

Are horses who we really hate? Why is it so important for us to label each other victors or victims? Is it possible for our intellect and heart to rise above our predator instinct?

I’m not saying that how we train horses will bring about world peace. It’s just one place to start.

 ….
Solstice in Scotland: We’re in process of planning a series of clinics in June 2018. If you would like to host a clinic or attend a clinic, please contact me here.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon

 

Escape the Death Spiral: Asking For a Step.

Let me begin by defining a death spiral. It’s asking a horse to do something he just avoided, by circling around and asking again. It could be as simple as trying to move your horse a letter on an arena rail. Or repeat an attempted transition to another gait. Or do an obstacle from the ground. Or ask a horse to step into a trailer.

He avoided it, so you circle, pushing him right back. But then you give the outside rein (or lead rope) a hard pull for good measure. It’s asking a little louder and a little faster the second time, hoping that you can push him through, but he braces his ribs in response to your sharp heel, planted and pressing, not all that far from his kidneys. His hind end skitters to the side.

Now your brain is running like a rat on a wheel, it’s personal, so you circle him one more time pulling your inside rein to the exact degree that he is pulling to the outside, with your seat planted and both legs kicking up a frenzy, along with a tap of the whip. And did I mention you are pulling on the reins during your kicking fit? You’re just trying to get him straight, but he has so much tension and resistance from your conflicting cues that now that he can’t take a step.

Wait, I forgot the most important part. What makes it a death spiral isn’t the circle or his refusal. It’s you. It’s your nagging request that gets louder and bigger and faster and never stops. It’s the overlapping use of flailing cues that become a rant that accelerates and obliterates your connection with your horse, as if the goal or obstacle is a matter of life or death.

The worst part: You might not have noticed that you cued this pig-fight but you are the one having a runaway. Not your horse. Stop. Consider yourself in detention. Let your horse breathe.

“If the inside of a person is bothered, it’s for sure that the outside of a horse is going to show it.” -Tom Dorrance

First, you didn’t create the circling back idea and you don’t get all the blame. It’s somehow become common knowledge in riding. Forget it. It’s a lousy tactic unless it’s your goal to fry your horse’s brain.

One calm circle-back might do the trick, but just one. More than that and the circle-back, intended as a way of correcting an evasion, becomes a way for the horse to evade the war of cues, now bigger than the original task ever was. It trains some horses to frantically circle when they get confused. It becomes a hysterical calming signal intended for you; he’s forgotten the obstacle and is evading your over-cueing now. You’ve changed the subject from the original question to letting him know that you’re a scary, warlike leader.

Some horses won’t go forward at all, preferring to stand and brace for the punishment to come. It can feel like disobedience, but a horse shutting down is a calming signal. It’s your horse saying, “I’m no threat to you; you don’t have to yell.”

Meanwhile, you’re still in detention. Take stock in this hindsight moment. Can you tell when your ego kicked in? Can you tell when you went from creating safety and security for your horse to starting a war that you had to win? It’s a good question. The line between these extremes is small, especially once you’ve stopped breathing.

The other side of that line is anxiety. Humans and horses both respond to anxiety the exact same way. We speed up. Then that speed makes us speed up some more.

Most of the time we throw our horses at something scary, pummel them with cues, and yell, “Brace yourself, Baby!” To be abundantly clear, that’s why you’re in detention.

Back to the beginning. Horses need a moment to think. It doesn’t mean they’re refusing. Have a little faith. Ask politely.

You may only ask for one thing at a time. Then you wait for an answer. Count to ten, more than once if you need to. It will feel way too slow but that’s because you’re used to cueing runaways. After he answers, reward him. If the answer was not the one you wanted, then re-phrase the question. Not louder. Not quicker. Ask for something simple that you can both agree on. Cut the task into tiny bite-sized pieces.

Ask for one step. Reward him, pause, and ask for another. Go slow and don’t interrupt the conversation. Mounted or on the ground, do you and your horse have this skill? Walk, halt, walk? You won’t need your hands for this. He should listen to your seat if you’re riding and your feet if you’re on the ground. This is fundamental; you should be asking for halts and walk-offs in your warm-up.

Taking one step at a time toward an obstacle, pausing, and rewarding each try, will get the job done in a fraction of the time that jerking and kicking your horse in circles takes. The result will be fewer ulcers and greater partnership.

In dressage, we are constantly returning to the fundamentals and refining them. They are the foundation of good riding and when trained with patience and reward, horses count on the connection and comfort found in these simple conversations. Isn’t this the place to learn the finesse to ask more complicated questions? Isn’t that the confidence you want to take forward to bigger challenges?

It always seems like we ask for too much or too little. We’re too loud and our horse is reactive. We are too confusing and our horse is shut down. It can feel frustrating when you are trying to do right, but sorry, what you think doesn’t matter. It’s just you talking to yourself.

Talk to your horse instead. Use your body to give clear cues. Practice them in calm situations. Celebrate fundamental connection but more than that, commit yourself to being a leader who never gives up that profound connection with her horse in favor of a silly external distraction. Like a letter on an arena rail or a horse trailer.

Lead with peaceful persistence: Not aggressive. Not conceding. Not emotional.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Photo Challenge: Waiting

WM Skunk llama

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.
 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Waiting

Leadership Percentages and Confused Horses

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.)

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Part One: My Horse Betrayed Me.

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.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Common Sense about Horse Communication

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.

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