Horses Are Pessimists

Your horse is a young horse or a rescue horse or the heart-horse of your life. A mare or a gelding or something else entirely. He comes in a plain brown wrapper or loud spots. He’s fresh as rain or he’s an elder with high withers and a slow stride. You stay on the ground, immersed in a simple love of horse breath and mucking. Or he has a canter that makes you feel the way babies feel when their father gently tosses them to the sky, provides a soft landing, and then lobs them up again.

(I stipulate that your horse is beautiful and perfect and the very best horse ever. Just like mine.)

It doesn’t matter if you’ve only just begun with horses or you’ve been riding forever. If it’s an ordinary day or a special day. It’s something beyond your riding discipline or breed or training method. It’s so deep in a horse’s very fiber that a hundred years after his death it will stay in his distilled essence…

In an instant of overwhelming surprise, he thinks the absolute worst will happen every time. Instinct rules. Fear makes his eyes wide and his poll freezes. His jaw turns to stone and he bolts. You might see it coming or it might hit both of you from behind in a hot blow of furious anxiety. It isn’t that he thinks the spooky thing is a matter of life or death. It’s just death.

Horses are born pessimists.

Of course, they are. Horses are flight animals, first and foremost. It’s an instinct woven into muscle and bone. Bolting away is their best natural defense. Add to that the power of natural selection, at least historically, and the horses here today are the winners of a literal race for survival; the ones who think the worst the quickest and act on it.

Dawdling through a chat with the herd about the spooky thing would be crazy. An extra moment spent wondering if the shadow was a plant or a predator could easily be the end.

In this light, we should be almost grateful for their pessimism instead of correcting them, thinking spooking is a disobedience within their control. We ask so very much from horses and it’s easy to get complacent about what we are asking means to them.

Seen from this perspective, fear-based training seems like riding on thin ice. To some of us.  Kind, confidence-building training can encourage a horse to trust his rider with what his instinct tells him is potential death. Shouldn’t we humans find that humbling?

Empathy is the word that comes up in quotes from ancient dressage masters and wise old cowboys. Can we try to understand how horses feel without being overly sentimental or overly harsh?

Humans are works in progress, too. Some of us spook every time our horse does. Some of us get mad or frustrated by what we see as their shortcoming. Stoic humans might just get a little tighter deep inside. So, our insecurity shows as timidity or false bravado or perhaps an un-natural stillness, more obvious to our horses sometimes than it is to us. It isn’t just that they read our emotions; they’re impacted profoundly, even the stoic horses.

In a passive laziness, humans can fall into pessimism quite easily. It’s natural for us in a different way; we think too much, so it can feel like common sense in a resting state. No is the easy answer. It’s almost sensible to not try rather than make ourselves vulnerable and face failure. Is it just less disappointing to be negative? Ack.

Optimism does take more energy. If the mere idea makes you tired, you might be not just having a rough patch, you might be truly depressed. Give your horse a break, be kind to yourself, and get treatment, please.

If you’ve just landed in a resting state of pessimism, if you are protecting yourself with cynicism, that’s a reasonable behavior. It just doesn’t help your horse. Humans are theoretically an advanced animal because we have self-awareness; we think about our thoughts. Positive thought can be as hard to ride as a spooky horse, but we could pick up a good mental trot and head to the barn. Energy spent in positive thought returns at a gallop. Optimism is addictive. What if positive thinking in our own lives was the cue that most helped our horses in theirs?

Let the naysayers make excuses; horses respond to optimism as the confidence-building missing link that bridges the gap between instinct and training. If we want a horse to offer us behavior they’ve chosen above their natural instinct, then we have to push our own instincts first. Toy with the idea that vulnerability is actually a strength.

Feel your heart soften to empathy. Say the word good with an exhale of warm breath. Let yes be your answer to every question. Remember to say thank you. Practice until praise is your most natural instinct.

Maybe it’s humans who need the discipline to lift our optimism to encourage horses, appreciating fully the challenge we pose when asking for their precious trust.

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

 

 

 

Horses: Technique and Art

“Shut Up and Dance”

It was written on one of those little tin lapel pins and my friend wore it when we went to bars back in the day. It was like a rebel yell of a Zen mantra; we’d dance with men or women or dogs. It was a rambunctious celebration of being young and alive. We frolicked like colts cantering about a field, snorting and kicking up our hooves. Free.

Then life happened. We got distracted by family and careers. We bought calendars and scribbled appointments and noticed the sound of our parent’s voices coming out of our mouths. We learned the attraction of a slow dance because we were hurried all the time.

Before that, if we’d had the wild luck to have a horse, we’d climb on and if we wanted to go to the woods, but the horse wanted to go to that patch of tall grass behind the barn, there was no problem. We went to that patch of tall grass behind the barn.

Horses taught us to be spontaneous, but our new-found maturity, we decided we needed to steer our horses, control their heads, make them do a task. As soon as that happened, we started missing the way it used to be with horses when we were kids.

As the magic escaped us, we searched for what we lost. We asked for help from a neighbor or a local trainer. In my case, I got a book from the library because it was before the time of the Computasaurus.

Some of us found videos put out by trainers who were smart enough to see a need in the market. Technique got seasoned with the sweetness of financial gain… for the trainer. We were desperate to do better for our horses, who had about lost patience with us by now. Which means we had about lost patience with techniques.

We tried our best to find someone who knew the path back to how it was but there isn’t a trainer in the world who holds his hand up and declares, “I train with cruelty and abuse.” Still, some do. Each trainer had a different definition of leadership, along with various techniques for picking up feet, doing canter departs, and everything else. Some work and some don’t.

Disclaimer: Horse people are very opinionated, and everyone is certain their way is absolutely right. This includes me.

We got good advice and we got bad advice, but then we layered that with conflicting advice, and finally on top of that, what worked for your horse one day, probably didn’t work on another day. So we ended up with lots of techniques vying for dominance in our minds, and we got more involved with our thoughts than our horses.

Horses keep telling us that they are individuals and we keep trying to squeeze them into a succession of one-size-fits-all training plans that never quite fit.

Some of the horses didn’t show us much tolerance as we flounder with a new technique. They gave us calming signals because we were abrupt or gave cues louder than we intended. Or we didn’t really understand the new technique, so our confidence was a bit frail and the horses responded to that with confusion. Eventually, tired frustration made it feel like nothing worked but aggression, and that only worked if you kept escalating. Like a rat on a wheel, driven by compulsion and not inspiration.

A plague of doubt. And it doesn’t matter if it started with your horse or you. It was contagious.

The secret no one seems to mention is the technique, regardless of whose technique it is, will never be enough. A technique is a noun, a thing like a skeleton or a box. It’s dry science until we clothe it with creativity, make it our own, and then allow our horses to discover it for themselves. A technique is hollow until each rider breathes their unique life into it and then introduces it to their unique horse.

It’s a catch-22: The technique won’t work unless we are inspired by it but it’s hard to be inspired by a flat technique.

The answer is that we have to embrace the art of training. We must believe in the what if. We might need to show our horses more confidence than we have in the beginning.

Shakespeare, the bard of theater, said, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” It’s a much more poetic way of saying fake it, till you make it, but your horse is reading you right back as you read him. Can you be interesting and mysterious?

Put your doubt on a shelf and let the play begin. Let your serious goals for training take back seat to spontaneity. Lighten up with the science, horses like recess more than books. You were once that way, too, remember? Laugh at yourself. Let him see you try and if you stumble, laugh more. Show him it’s more fun to try than to stand back and doubt.

Success depends on not how well you mimic the particular technique you are using, but instead, how well you listen to your horse and engage him in the moment.

Technique is necessary and good. Then, shut up and dance.

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

 

 

 

Whitebait for Lunch

I was watching first-run Star Trek episodes before I ever took a commercial airline flight. I only mention this because there seems to be a gray area for me between transporters and planes. Especially if you agree with horses that clocks don’t really have any connection with time. So, here I am in New Zealand and it either took me 24 hours or a couple of days to get here, but I fell asleep on an airplane and woke up someplace else entirely. I was transported.

Travel Tip#1: Think seriously about what you pack for international travel. I didn’t. I pack what I always pack when traveling to clinics. My trainer clothes. Crocs, the preferred shoe for chronically lame gray mares of a certain age. And my favorite two ropes.

After landing, I’m pulled aside because I have a work visa. The agent asks me what I will do for work and I answer. She stares at me.

“What do you have to declare?” I smile. “Packaged snacks,” I say, because I saw the posters about not allowing fresh food.

“Anything that’s come in contact with livestock?” I lean foward, like any confused tourist. I have a bit of a hearing loss and the accent confuses me.

“Yes, I have my two favorite ropes with me.” She pauses. Looks away, not entirely happy with me. She says something I don’t catch, and they she enunciates.

My host’s beautiful farm on the outskirts of Auckland.

“Anything else to declare?” I think hard. “No.”

“Do you have boots for your work?” Ack. I’ll be deported. “Yes,” I confess.

The agent goes through my bags, bit by bit. Long silence, I look at my toiletries with new suspicion. She asks me if I’m a horse whisperer. I weigh this question carefully, because I’m a little nervous about my favorite ropes. Because I think that’s a complicated question. I could write a book, but I’m confused about what to declare but I’ve been too slow to answer already. “I guess you could say that.”

The agent tells me to wait there and takes my ropes and boots away. I repack my bags and still have time to wait. After about as long as the flight over, she comes back with a bag of wet boots and a bag of wet ropes. She’s very jovial now and I thank her. I know better; in the last few years, we’ve all disinfected our boots to protect our home barn if there are health issues in our states. I thank her; she’s concerned about horses.

By the time I finally get to the waiting area, so much time has passed from my arrival time that the person picking me up is concerned that something is very wrong. Travel tip #2: If you are picking me up at an international airport, come two hours late. I believe the person who picked me up in Canada would agree.

My first impression of New Zealand? There is a lot of short spikey white hair here. Granted, it’s on older men, but still more than I usually see.

I’m met by a friend-I’ve-never-met, a reader who’s an ex-pat. She’s offered to get me acclimated before my first clinic.  We walk through a tropical storm to her car. Winds and rain tossing tropical plants, and the air so warm and moist that my skin relaxes. Living on a high desert prairie, skin can take on the qualities of cardboard. She is apologizing for the weather. It’s the strangest weather for this time of year. Something else I hear absolutely every place I go. Nobody has their usual weather anymore.

Language lessons: This is a vintage Impala pulling a caravan. Not a trailer and not a float.

Over the next 24 hours, I am treated to a massage at a Zen spa. Body work is a universal language. We have lunch at a restaurant overlooking a black sand beach and the ocean, hard to make out because of torrential rain. By now I’m only missing half the words spoken; I know to order a flat white to drink.

My new friend suggests a local Maori delicacy, no, I don’t quite pick up the name, but I order it. Whitebait. It’s like a crab cake only different. Because it’s made from hundreds of tiny eel-like fish. In this case, local slang is literal.

My biggest concern coming to New Zealand was the language challenge. It’s all  English, but I always have to focus really hard during Masterpiece Theatre in PBS. Accents baffle me. I have a bit of a hearing loss on top of that so I tend to keep a slightly alarmed look on my face. The sort of look that might encourage a customs agent to think I have something to hide. And I do; my embarrassment.

I go to bed when it’s dark but it’s impossible to tell what day it is or what day it used to be. I’ve set up a world clock on my phone, but looking at the time there has no connection with reality and it disoriented me more than helping. It’s been a day here but it’s yesterday at home. Guessing the day of the week is impossible. Besides, the light switches here flip the opposite way.

Apparently, crossing the International Date Line alters reality in some way that leaves me unstuck in time. I decide to just trust those who drive to get me where I need to be. Besides, driving on the other side of the road is as baffling as the light switches, but I could kill people trying to drive.

The next morning, another long flat white and I head out to the barn. As my new friend does her chores, I wander through her paddocks. I’ve never seen more beautiful hooves in my life. The soil is so rich that I never see a rib. The challenge is keeping the paddocks hacked down, even the ones with horses on them. Not a challenge we have on the high desert prairie at home.

There’s a warmblood mare in the barn. Thank God for mares. She’s confident and in charge. She watches me from a distance with a royal gaze; golden eyes, large and intelligent. Her coat is caramel and chocolate.  I’m a visitor here, she’s cautious and I don’t make assumptions.

We size each other up, sharing breath at a distance. This is the language I know; there’s no confusion of accent or local jargon. Another breath, she licks and snorts out a release, and moving a gelding out of her way, strides a straight line to me. Letting me know there would be no language problem where it matters.

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

Where the Trail Leads…

 

I know people who read cookbooks like they’re high-drama best sellers. I know people who fantasize wild lives of pirate adventure reading travel bloggers. It’s all good, just not for me. I like being in the barn.

Want to know a secret? I never had a dream to be a professional trainer. I wanted to be left in peace to abscess about my own horses. No, I don’t mean obsess. I only cared about my own self-absorbed riding. I wanted to be a forever student. But one lucky day, I got distracted by a herd of wayward weanlings. From there, it was like running downhill. It made all kinds of sense. If I trained, I could always be a student, but I’d have more horses. Yours.

All of this is to say I’m sitting in the San Francisco airport waiting for my flight to Auckland. I’ll be giving clinics and traveling in NZ and AU for the next six weeks. What an adventure! Not that Preacher Man, the corgi, didn’t try to trap me in the bathroom this morning.

So, this is the warning: I’ll be posting as usual but I’m so bad at math, there’s no telling when the usual Friday morning post will show up. You might have to start the coffee without me. Poems will still arrive somewhere near the vicinity of Monday. I’ll be posting more about the trip as I go, along with photos. If I’m not mistaken, I think the word for that is travel blogger.  I won’t post everything to Facebook. I could end up taking pictures of food. Oh, jeez. Did I just say that?

Meanwhile, I’m simply amazed at the New Zealand clinic organizers: Bex and Karin and Lisa and Jane and Tracey and Kim– miracle workers (and Corey, catching me at the airport.) In Australia, Megan and Tony and Jane and Kris– you’re wonderful. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to come meet you and your (my) horses.

I will confess, typing away in an airport bar, I am simply gobsmacked. Life is a wild ride; the abrasion of sadness and loss trotting along right next to bright and shiny possibility. No idea where we’ll end up but the horses brought us this far. No reason to pick up the reins now.

Thanks, Everyone. Thanks for reading along and sharing the trail.

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

The Middle Path: Discipline

“I’ve noticed that you sometimes seem to take reader requests for your blog, and I was wondering if you might sometime be able to talk about the specifics of correction. I find myself struggling sometimes to know exactly what to do, not wanting to be too harsh but at the same time not wanting to be a namby-pamby nag.”

It’s the dilemma, isn’t it? Dominating a horse into terrified submission is always a bad idea. I’m not sure that nagging them into a stupor is any kinder. Finding the middle path with a horse, between these extremes, is the sweet spot where communication flows without stress and confusion. Name that place confidence.

First, I am always going to wonder why we feel such a need to punish or correct horses. The obvious answer is that they aren’t doing what we want. Most of us feel some sort of nebulous voice warning us about respect or the danger of wild animals or the opinion that the natural world must bow to us because humans are superior. The voice has a slightly parental ring to it.

Most people tell me that they feel uncomfortable punishing animals, in spite of that traditional back chatter. It makes for an over-busy brain. Once and for all, pick a side. Dump the concept that correction or discipline as a necessary part of training. Tell those Neanderthal voices to shut up and correct the internal anxiety in your own mind. In that moment of peace, recognize that discipline is your friend.

Think about the idea of correction. The behavior that just happened is already in the past, but we are choosing to drag it back into the present, so we can discipline our horse about something he thinks is finished. Sure, he does learn from being corrected but not what you want. Punishment damages the trust our horses have in us. Really think about that. Then, correct yourself; let go of your grudge and get back in the present moment. Reward your own discipline.

If something went wrong, on the ground or in the saddle, correct your judgment and take a breath. Hear the amen choir coming from your horse, who is now starting to love this new definition of discipline.

Did your horse swing his head too close or push into you? You’re in his space. Discipline yourself to step back and let his anxiety cool. Watch for calming signals. If he licks or yawns or shakes his neck into a stretch, good job. You have listened to him. Real love means giving him autonomy.

Did your horse nip at your hand? He’s in pain; don’t you dare correct that. Behavior is the only way horses have of telling us how they feel. Listen to where it hurts. If he doesn’t stand still while saddling, think about ulcer issues. Correct your quickness. Slow down and pay attention any misbehavior, translated as discomfort. Listen to his body, regardless of your time constraints. Now that’s real discipline; put your horse’s needs above your ego. Good girl!

Let’s say the thought that you might be a namby-pamby nag crosses your mind. Take the idea seriously. Have a no tolerance policy for muffling your own voice. Correct your mind-jumble. Pause, inhale and say exactly what you mean in a clear cue. Focus and don’t apologize or let yourself be distracted.

Stay on task, don’t repeat yourself. Watch his eye; his face. Is he thinking about it? Of course, especially if he’s giving calming signals. Reward him right then. Reward him for thinking; build his try. Then trust your horse’s intelligence. Let him figure it out. Discipline yourself to give him time to do it himself.

Training isn’t a right or wrong game. It’s that kids game of Hot and Cold. Ignore his cold responses and let him know when he’s getting warmer. Be generous in praise of all things heading the right direction. It’s called progressive approximation and it’s how all of us learn. Discipline yourself to be ridiculously cheerful and positive. Now you’re mentally looking forward and your horse can’t tell the difference between discipline and partnership. Yay! Winning!

Search your memory. Was there a time that being called out and humiliated taught you anything positive? Did someone feeling sorry for you make you stronger? Have you ever felt betrayed by someone who under-estimated you? Then correct yourself when you say words like “rescue” and “problem with my horse.”

If you don’t like the plight of the horse, get off FB and into community government. Donate the money spent on manicure and hair dye, and get ready for world transformation. Create actual change but understand whining about it in front of a horse does more damage to how he relates to you, than it does good in the world.

Correct your definition of training problem; stop seeing horses as hapless children or dysfunctional victims. They are not stuffed toys who magically heal us. We must do our own work before we can help them. Discipline yourself to see horses in their full glory. Strong and intelligent. As perfectly capable of trust and partnership as humans are. Aspire to keep that promise.

Continue to cue cleanly, clearly, and consistently. The other word for that is honesty. It’s a profound relief to just say what you mean. No longer biting your tongue, soon confidence seeps in because honesty just feels good. Nice correction, give yourself a pat. Most women have known enough confident asshats that confidence has gotten a bad name.

Redefine confidence is a sense of positive well-being based in honesty. Set about demonstrating that for your horse. Know that training a horse to have confidence,  to feel peace and acceptance, is the resolution for every problem he will ever encounter. Leadership is giving a feeling of safety. Correct your stiff contradictions and anxiety about not being good enough. Recognize you’re passing it on to your horse, causing the behaviors you want to correct in him. Discipline yourself to accept your shortcomings and promise to do better. Love yourself as much as you love horses.

Your horse doesn’t care if you’re always right; he just wants to trust himself through your partnership. Your confidence is his confidence. Train that.

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

Your Horse Loves Arena Riding

Does your horse have a Night of the Living Dead lurch to the arena? Do you clock in like it’s a factory job? Is there a rut on the rail, and is it you?

Worst of all, is the arena a cell without windows where he gets corrected and controlled? Is it the kind of place where being gate sour, just wanting out, is common sense?

People tell me that their horse doesn’t like the arena and it’s obvious why. If your riding involves arena time, the first priority is to make it a place your horse wants to be. What if, instead of a horse being barn sour, he was arena sour. What if he pulled toward the arena because that’s where all the good things happen?

I learned a new word this week. It’s the German term funktionslust. Try to pronounce it; it’s juicy. It refers to the pleasure taken in doing what one does best. It’s birds flying, dogs playing ball. It speaks of a horse taking thunderous flight, feeling the glory in his physical body. Shouldn’t funktionslust be the sign on the arena gate?

For horses, living in the moment means what their body feels. Our words will never matter as much as his physical state. He doesn’t care what you think about horse slaughter or nutritional supplements or Nuno Oliveira. Right now, is his neck short, is his back is tense, is his movement is restricted?

A riding arena should be a blank slate, not intrinsically good or bad. Not the scene of a competition or a cool beach at sunset. We can create the arena as a playground, a dance studio, or a torture chamber. We can spend time trying to heal our horse’s attitudes about the arena by hacking on long trails, or we can make the arena a place they don’t need therapy to recover from in the first place.

Start here: all great rides begin with a curry. I don’t care if you ever use a brush for grooming, but the curry is a thing of magic. As you move over every inch of his body with energy and focus, feel your own body. It’s your primary tool for communication. Let the circling of the curry on his rump, soften your shoulders. Roll your neck as you curry his poll. Shifting weight from one leg to another, relax your own hips. Stretch your back as you bend to pick his hooves. Curry your horse until you lick and chew.

At the same time, make a plan for your ride. Vow to be happy in the saddle, lightly eloquent with your cues. Think about your own energy and don’t expect more from your horse than you are willing to put out. Have a plan because horses read that focus as confidence. Then be aware that you’ll stick to the plan 11-13% percent of the time. Laugh about it, out loud so he can hear you.

Head to the arena with a long step. Communicate through your body, let your feet be forward but don’t you dare pull on the lead. It’s the cue to him that you’ll be pulling on the reins later.

He doesn’t have to go to work right away. If you are taking the halter off and bridling there, spend too much time in between. Let him look. If you have friends riding when you get there, say hello to them but then ignore them and focus on your horse.

Are you a perfectionist? Call a moratorium on any of your behaviors that might fit in well in a 1950s Catholic girls’ school. Are you the silent, brooding type? Lift your energy. Smile. Show some teeth. Be interesting.

Start slow. Take a stroll with your horse on the ground. No hands, pay attention to your feet. Breathe. Walk big arcs. If you lunge before you ride, let him play in the beginning. If he lets out a buck, cheer for it. Let him shake it all out before you begin to ask for transitions.

When you get to the mounting block, have a scratch fest. Mount up and breathe. This is the dance. Breathe some more. If you are a longtime novice rider, you’ve been taught to sit still and be quiet in the saddle. If you’re timid, you might be unnaturally quiet. If you don’t have a plan, your horse is bored already. So right now, lift your own energy. Feel the funktionslust in your own body. Riders ride! It’s you, doing what you love. Cheer up, for crying out loud.

Walk on.  Crank up the music. Focus, go to work with energy. You’ll need discipline to keep your own energy high, to allow the freedom of movement your horse needs to find his balance and feel strong.

Do not punish your horse in the arena. Punishment destroys trust and if it happens every time he goes to the arena, it’s like returning to the scene of the crime. If your horse already has a history of being punished in the arena, it’ll be obvious. Let him know he has all the time he needs.

Go to work with purpose, forward and relaxed. Let him feel his body strong. Sometimes do it his way. Find a fair challenge because it keeps the conversation interesting. Know that he’s giving you what you asked for and adjust yourself accordingly.

Sometimes take an arena trail ride. Drop the reins and don’t care where you go. Sometimes when you are on the trail, do a spiraling exercise or practice light transitions. In the end, riding is just riding. Never location. It’s about a conversation between friends.

Finish the ride a long rein. Energy high, striding out. Halt and take a load off. Your horse, of course. No lingering, being the cool kid on a horse. Don’t make him hold you when he can’t mitigate the weight by moving.

Step a few feet away and give him a full release. Wait for him to take it. Wait for the yawn, the neck shake. No need to rush, let the arena be a sanctuary; the place you congratulate each other on your obvious brilliance. Let your voice be low and soft, with a hint of a nicker.

…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 wou

Talking Animals at Midnight

Just in from the night feed. It’s longjohn weather, my head bandaged with layers of hats and a muffler, thick boots, a winter barn coat that makes me look like one of those inflatable lawn ornaments folks have in town. It’s ten degrees on a particularly black night when the stars are the starkest white. There’s a silent dusting of snow.

The night is so quiet that animals aren’t hunkered down in their stalls. Instead, they are standing in friendly groups, playing nose games. When they hear the backyard gate, there is a round of nickers, each voice recognizable. Edgar Rice Burro takes a few wheezing gasps warming up for his full-out bray.

Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. I love this night for its supernatural quality. You can half-see every horse you ever loved in the periphery, never really gone at all. Throw some extra hay for the long darkness tonight. Extra hay for the horses who have walked on, for those yet to arrive, and for those who have none. Throw extra hay as an affirmation that it’ll all be okay.

European countries have traditional stories about animals magically talking at midnight. Some say it starts with the Feast of Santa Lucia, others say Solstice or others, Christmas Eve. It’s oxen and donkeys mainly. One fable says oxen knelt and welcomed the baby Jesus verbally. Like many folktales, some have pagan roots as well. In those stories, animals talk at midnight, but not always kindly. Some animals take revenge and owners get their due for poor care or over-work. Which does sound like something to celebrate.

Annual PSA: For all the talk about the “War on Christmas,” kindly remember that some of us feel that Christmas declares war on us every year. It would be Christian to remember that not all of us are Christians. Not everyone has a family. Some of us have lost loved ones. Some of us feel excluded or judged unfairly or are just licking our wounds from a hard-fought year. Not everyone can keep up. Santa brings some kids computers or real ponies, while some kids get socks. Even Santa isn’t fair. (Every year, I meet more people who choose to not celebrate the holiday. It gives me hope.)

So, I drag my feet, considering the variations on this folktale, as I finish in the barn, nod to the ghosts, and start back to the house. On a sacred night like this, I hear voices. Oh, that’s a lie. I always hear voices. Animals are chatterboxes if you listen to their body-voice and even the most stoic horse over-talks when he thinks he’s being heard.

What do animals say? No shortage of opinions there. I must hear my father’s voice loudest, also a ghost now, but still insisting that dumb animals, beasts of burden, can’t think or feel. A traditional majority agrees with him. Science says differently and more of us are curious. That’s a partial win.

The other extreme? A touchy subject. I’ll call them Romanticizers. They love horses so much that they have a barn full of skinny rescues with long hooves. Some rally behind the term NO KILL and sometimes that means suffering. Some believe horses are divine spiritual teachers. They put human words into equine mouths to support their goals or politics, and then feel superiorly-humble about it. It’s okay. Horses don’t seem to take that seriously.

I have my own opinions, not any more popular. I don’t think horses consider us the center of their lives, no matter how much we wish they did. They have full sentient lives, more connected with the herd than the humans who visit a few hours a day. Some of us are pretty interesting to them, but we are other.

I’m interested in those of us in the middle of these two thought extremes, trying to listen and be perceptive, while not over-humanizing horses. It’s challenging because we only have our human experience to compare with theirs. Kind of a dilemma, if you follow. It means pushing our love and passion aside, using our human language to describe them, while respecting their equine nature and instinct primarily.

All that said… on this magic night, what might horses say?

Some say humans are a warlike species, angry and cruel, to be avoided and never trusted. Other equines wonder if humans might be a sentient species. Some think we seem to read their minds from time to time. Other times humans are flighty and spook easily. They wonder if humans are capable of communication, so they come close and try to listen. Beyond the din of our words, they notice that many humans give conflicting messages. Many are timid or ill-tempered.

So, they give us calming signals to let us know that they are no threat. That we don’t have to be so loud in our love or hate; that we don’t have to try so hard. They share breath with us, suggesting peace as an alternative to our incomprehensible mental chatter. Some horses think humans might even have souls.

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

 

Seriously Lighthearted

Do you ever get the impression that your show up at the barn and your horse is watching you with an expression of “who are you today?

Most of us have a few different personas. There’s the one for work; you watch your language there. The one for your oldest friend from high school; she’s the arbiter of honesty.  There is a “first” persona, for first dates, job interviews, and meeting strangers formally. We’re usually tense and shiny then, from trying too hard while simultaneously hoping to appear totally natural. Whew.

It isn’t that we’re being dishonest, we’re just choosing a version of ourselves for a particular situation. Some of it is following a set of rules that we imagine is required. It’s being professional or respectful or nervous. It’s being witty and conversational when you’re an introvert and you’d rather be mucking the barn.

And sure. Some of us create personas that are dishonest.

We have barn personas, too. Some of us put our horses in our old friend category; we can be whoever we want around them. Some of us want to do the right thing so badly that we show up like a Teacher’s pet, reciting rules precisely, wondering if there’s a horse making faces behind us.  Some of us pick a persona of a little girl around horses, giggling or swooning.

And some of us were taught that horses need a dominant leader, so we train with bravado, like Furiosa, from Mad Max: Fury Road. (I just loved her make-up. Didn’t you?)

Truth #1: You can be whoever you want at the barn. It’s all good as long as you don’t ever complain about anything your horse does. Ever.

Truth #2: You’re not fooling anyone. Not your trainer or friends. Least of all, your horse. And if you have a mare, she knows the truth about you that day, before you get up in the morning.

Now shift perspective. Pretend it isn’t all about us. See it from your horse’s side.

Say you treat your horse like an old friend. You come late, you’re in a hurry. You dump your day, share joy or anger or frustration. How does he feel about that? A stoic horse shuts down from the emotion. Horses don’t hear pronouns; your stress is now theirs. Stress abides and soon he gives calming signals about his stress. It’s okay. We’ve been using horses this way forever, but you have to wonder, do I want to give my horse (or my oldest friend) my best self or leftovers?

Are you a little Type A? Just to save time, raise your hand if you aren’t. I’m not sure why perfectionists are drawn to horses but we are. We nit-pick, micro-manage, and fall short of our own ridiculous standards. We create a crust of self-loathing. Horses experience it as never being right. Not you, them. They never feel good enough, like everything they do is partly wrong. Sound familiar? Horses lose confidence. It kills their try and eventually their souls, but we might think they look like push-button horses. (Mares, not so much.)

Are you a little girl in the barn? Okay. Your horse can babysit you.

This last one is touchy. Do you arrive at the mounting block in domination mode? It’s the most complex barn persona because it’s how most of us were taught. Be the boss and demand respect through fear. It’s also the one most riders I work with tell me is the one they hate the most.

(If I had a nickel for every rider who’s told me she gets a lump in her stomach, that it just doesn’t feel right, to assert harsh leadership, well, I’d have twenty more retired horses in my barn.)

What does a horse think about the dominant persona? As prey animals, they will submit in fear to a predator. Flight is the first response, but you can fight through that to submission. And since horses don’t have social media, they don’t know the #metoo hashtag. But fair warning; some mares never get the hang of submission.

What do horses think about personas in general? I think we confuse them with the gap between who we are deep down and this surface behavior that can mean so many things. And more so if we change personas frequently. We confuse horses with our incongruency.

Domination seems to work because horses may be hard to fool, but are fairly easy to intimidate. That kind of training won’t make a horse trustworthy, and not surprisingly, that’s how they see us. Untrustworthy. There is no trust in domination, on either side. No wonder some riders get a lump in their stomach.

You don’t need to change a thing. I’m just suggesting you notice the role your particular persona plays for your horse. If you have the perfect partnership, wonderful.

If you think it might be time for a persona upgrade, that you are serious about wanting more and better with your horse, then consider being seriously positive.

Demonstrate the persona change you’d like to see in your horse. Be seriously relaxed in your own body, soft shoulders and soft belly. Most of all, a soft jaw. The easiest way is to breathe, smile, and say “good” every chance you get.

Be seriously patient and your horse will offer his heart. Be seriously grateful and it will change your own heart. Most of all, be seriously lighthearted because horses like us that way.

Horses want honesty. They can tell when we pretend to be someone we’re not. The more I’m around horses, the more they show me it’s our true intention that matters most. Horses blossom when we become the best version of ourselves.

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

Calming Signals and Pain

 

First, last, and always, make sure your horse is sound. 

That’s the warning that any decent equine professional gives before practically anything we do. It’s the common disclaimer; we almost skim over it as a formality before getting on to the training issues. In other words, we get complacent to chronic pain messages because it’s easier to train sometimes than it is to track down some nebulous pain. We should know better.

It’s the first question every rider should ask from the ground every day. Is my horse sound? Learning to read pain takes perception; it’s complicated in the beginning. It isn’t that we don’t care. We might not be sure and that means a vet call. We usually have a plan that day. Even if it’s a trail ride, we don’t want to cancel. If it’s something that involves money or hauling or inconveniencing other people, we usually think it’s not so bad and go ahead. We should do better.

There’s also a disclaimer that we should hear from horses –first, last and always. They are prey animals. Their instinct is so interwoven into their behavior and personality, that it’s inseparable.  Prey animals aren’t forthcoming about pain.

If your horse is stoic, he’ll grit his teeth, sometimes literally, and keep trudging on acting like he’s fine, until it’s too late. If your horse is more reactive than stoic, he’ll act aggressively hoping that bravado will pass for strength. They aren’t okay.

It’s common sense if you’re a horse. Prey animals hide their pain to survive. They are born knowing that the wolves kill the slow, lame members of the herd. Showing weakness, even within the herd, could mean less access to hay. It isn’t good or bad; it’s nature’s plan that the fit survive. We throw a wrench into that cycle when we domesticate animals so, at the very least, we must listen much more carefully.

Most of us can read enough herd dynamics to know that shy old gelding might need to eat separately. We proudly list each horse’s position in the herd as an affirmation that we know our horses. As if it’s some kind of equine astrology and now that we know the horse is a Sagittarius that explains everything.

I’ve been teaching calming signals for the last few years as a way of understanding small messages from our horses before they become huge issues. It’s fun to have a non-verbal conversation with a horse. I always give the reminder about soundness but often we’d rather have a conversation about challenges, like standing still at the mounting block. What if the mounting block represents the beginning of what hurts and your horse resists it because he’s smart? Not a training issue at all.

It’s about now that we have to ask the hard question: Is it my lousy hands or is he in pain for another reason?

How is his saddle fit? If you aren’t having that checked at the very least once a year, things have changed and he feels it. Maybe he has a rib out or his withers are a bit jammed and he needs a chiropractic adjustment. Maybe he’s in his teens and you have repressed the idea that his back might be getting arthritic.

I don’t blame people. Checking for soundness is an affirmation of our horse’s mortality. Ick. Lameness can be hard to diagnose, even with radiographs and ultrasound. And I think there are pains that horses feel that we just can’t find, even with the best help. Vet science is still an art.

If lameness weren’t complicated enough, the existence of ulcers can distract us from questions of soundness. Ulcers are a huge issue for horses. Between 60% and 90% of horses have them, and worse, they sometimes mask lameness issues. It isn’t uncommon to treat a horse for ulcers and then perhaps find a stifle problem underneath them.

For all our horse’s anxiety about pain and not showing it, and for all our anxiety about the same, we have to start by getting past our emotions, fear, and love for a moment. Stand away from your horse, take a breath, and watch with quiet eyes. These are calming signals that could also be signs of pain:

  • A tense poll, elevated head.
  • Ears back or one ear back and one forward.
  • Tight muscles around the eye.
  • Exposed white of the eye.
  • Intense stare or partially closed eyes.
  • Clenched lips or nostrils.

You’re right. Those are symptoms so common. Some are even contradictory. We see them all the time, it’s easy to be complacent about them. They could be calming signals to ask you to cue quieter or that they need a moment to think. Or they could be signs of pain.

It’s that experience where you type a couple of your own symptoms into Google to try to self-diagnose, only to find you could have one of twenty life-threatening issues. How many times do we think we’re just depressed but it turns out that depression is a symptom of twenty other terrifying life-threatening issues?

And suddenly playing with calming signals is less fun. If you have a stoic horse, then cut that minimal fun in half. Can we ever trust what a stoic horse relates? Are so many nebulous and negative unknowns looming large enough now that you doubt everything you used to think you knew?

Perfect. You’re not supposed to think you know everything.

Instead, work on having an open mind and good intention. We must be willing to see “bad behavior” as a message and not a training issue. Be willing to listen, but also be willing to hear things we don’t want to hear. Even embrace the idea that our horses might be in pain. I don’t mean that we all become equine hypochondriacs but how can we help them if we don’t almost welcome the idea?

Positive training, asking a horse to volunteer, is more than kind. It has a distinct advantage for the horse. He gets what he wants from a leader. He gets to be heard when he hurts.

First, last, and always, make sure your horse is sound. 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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. 

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
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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.