Calming Signals: YOUR Response.

Photo by Sheri Kerley

I’ll start with the bad news. For those of us who grew up cantering in the living room and then one day heard the term “natural horsemanship” and thought it meant we could be a horse in a real herd, I have some lousy-bad news:

There will never be a day when a horse looks at a human and thinks they see a horse. Give it up. It was just a sales pitch for something else entirely. You don’t get to be a horse. Sorry.

The good news is that if we become a slightly more well-mannered version of ourselves and listen in their language, horses will return an in-the-moment relationship so intense, intelligent, and profound, that for the first time in your life, you won’t mind not being a horse.

I’ve written about calming signals since 2014. Calming signals are subtle body messages that horses use to let us know they feel anxiety or conflict; that they are no threat and we don’t need to act aggressively. The signal demonstrates desired behavior from us at the same time. He might look away, stretching his head down as a way of asking us to relax and go slow.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. We tend to be too loud and bossy.

First, think of the barn as a foreign country. Then decide what kind of tourist you want to be. You can play the part of a privileged elitist throwing alms to the poor or a peace-maker negotiating with heads of state.  It’s up to you but you don’t own this place. You are a visitor. Remember your manners.

First, clean yourself up. Take this part very seriously. No, they don’t care what you wear but clean your mind up. Excuse your emotions, you won’t need them. Same with expectations and plans; horses don’t think about the future. You’re the only part of the interchange you can control, so take your time. Square your shoulders and balance your thoughts. Every time you want to talk, breathe instead. Get comfortable with silence. Learn to love the peace in waiting because it’s real.

If quieting your mind is hard for you, consider a yoga or meditation practice. Do it for your horse. If your emotions rule your life, you’re in overwhelm and horses don’t like that. Sure, you can use your horse as a therapist but why would you want to put those feelings of pain and insecurity on him? (Says the woman who literally went for couple’s therapy to talk about her horse.)

Warm up your senses. Tune your eyes to small things. Listen to your surroundings and slow down your perception of time so that you can be fully present. Each of their senses is more acute than ours so we need to start by being sure we are using the marginal senses that we do have to their full potential.

Think more awareness and less intellect. If you wonder if a response is a coincidence or that you might have imagined it, then believe it was real. With your limited senses, it’s probably true.

At the same time, be strict not to draw human conclusions. A horse might be giving you welcoming signals but doesn’t mean that he’s a sweetheart or a caregiver or a Zen master. Just let him be a horse.

You’ll need to learn their language. You probably know the swear words: pinned ears, bared teeth, the threat to kick. We can avoid those by listening sooner, to the smaller messages. Calming signals include looking away, narrowing eyes, stretching his neck to rub his nose on his leg or graze when he isn’t hungry.  Signals are as varied as there are unique individuals and there will never be a precise translation.

How to answer back is simple. You let your body demonstrate calm. You breathe. You balance and wait. You put your emotions on him but in a good way. You let him feel safe.

Give him a release by stepping out of his space. Let him know that you heard him, that you understand that he’s feeling anxiety and you respect that. Step back. Look for a release in his jaw and mouth, for soft eyes and a relaxed poll.

Nothing good is learned through fear, so let the anxiety pass before doing more. Let him assimilate what happened. Let it rest awhile. Ask again, but discipline yourself to ask smaller this time.

If he swings his head back toward you, he’s volunteering. It’s what you want; give him the reward that he wants. You resist the desire to hug him and babytalk. Instead, give him his space and exhale. You’re training him to trust himself. He’s been heard. Let him rest in that confidence.

Someone asked me this week, after a particularly communicative session with her horse, “Does it feel as good to them as it does to us?” In my experience, some horses are slow to start. It’s as if they haven’t been listened to for so long that they’ve given up. Others yell hysterically for the same reason. Hold steady to the calm and peacefully persist.

Once it all shakes out and they trust that line of communication, they become chatterboxes, always mumbling a running commentary. Horses constantly interrupt me in lessons to say the exact thing I’m trying to articulate. I’m humbled by their brevity.

Do I think it feels as good to them as it does to us? No. I think it feels even better. Equality is the ultimate freedom.

Donkey calming signals are like horse’s, but longears are smarter and hence, more subtle. Are you good enough for donkeys? There’s one calming signal that donkeys are particularly famous for using. We call it being stubborn, but I think they see it as not giving in to loud-mouth idiots who don’t take time to listen. It certainly doesn’t take a donkey more time to answer. They just resent being hurried.

What would happen if humans adopted that particular donkey calming signal? What if we got stubborn about going slow? Stubborn about listening and not fighting? Stubborn about whispering because we’re predators and lucky that horses even consider partnering with us in the first place.

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

Calming Signals and the Aggressive Horse.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. Because we are an unpredictable war-like species.

This week I’m answering a question: A rider, who was really enjoying her calming signals work, emailed a question about what to do about an aggressive horse. The rider said that a fancy show mare had come to her barn temporarily and boarders had been told that the mare was fine with horses but not humans; they were warned to not “get in her face.” 

Our rider was leading her horse in around suppertime and that mare was guarding the alley to the gate. The mare tried to get between them, the rider reached out for her horse, and after a couple of warnings from the mare, and the she grabbed the rider’s wrist in her teeth and pinned her ears. She could have done much worse.

Our rider, demonstrating un-common sense, dropped the rope, retreated, and took her horse out another gate. The right answer because she was in close quarters and it wasn’t her horse. She said that several other boarders offered to help bring her mare next time, and show her how to handle this type of situation. (She wasn’t comfortable with their advice… smart decision.)

She added that a few days later, while being led into the barn, the mare attacked a barn-worker who escaped by locking herself in a stall, until the mare eventually sauntered into her own stall. (Vindicated, the rider would still like to know how to handle this kind of horse, in this type of situation.)

Disclaimer: I would be foolish to give advice when I can’t literally see the horse; I never substitute someone else’s eyes for mine because I usually see the situation differently. And I think that’s what people want from me. That said, I’m thrilled that no one got hurt… and here goes…

Foremost, is the mare sound? Her health must be the first question. Being a show horse is a stressful life and she’s moved to a new barn. Does she have ulcers? Change is harder on them than we understand. If she is acting like a stallion, could she have reproductive issues? Are her hormones out of control? Ovarian cysts are common and under-diagnosed. It could be her teeth or a million other things. My first stop would be with the vet, and in the meantime, rather than warning the boarders, the barn owner shouldn’t turn the mare out with other horses, for everyone’s safety.

I’d bet my truck this mare’s in pain, but let’s pretend the vet clears her and said her issues aren’t physically based. Now what?

Of course, you’ll get advice from Railbirds and testosterone-junkies of both sexes, but do not take it. Too many times, a self-appointed horse expert thinks all the horse needs is to be shown who’s boss. And about the time two or three “experts” have had a shot at her and failed, she is worse than when she started. Sounds like this mare may have had a dose of that already.

Aggressive trainers and riders count on getting to a place where their dominating aids and loud emotions intimidate a horse into playing dead. The other term for that is shut-down. The horse looks like teacher’s pet but with flat black eyes.  Stoic horses pull inside themselves for a long as they can.

But not all horses are stoic. Some are more expressive, with a bold self-confidence and a fearless heart.  The kind of horse who will not be bowed. She proudly looks you in the eye, refuses to submit, and holds her ground. Partnering with a horse who requires a human to be their equal is an amazing opportunity, but most humans take the low road and start a brutal physical battle. Just one reason that horses could think that we’re an unpredictable war-like species.

I don’t know this mare; I do know that horses reflect our emotions sometimes, and I know that a horse trained with fear is not dependable. I also know that some horses were never meant to belong to amateur owners –through no one’s fault.

Our rider said the mare gave her a couple of hints but she didn’t take them. My guess is that it wasn’t the first time. But that’s all history. What about now?

This is where I remind you that positive training isn’t just a lily-livered game for geriatric geldings on sunny afternoons. It isn’t just for decrepit rescue horses or mild-mannered kind souls. Reactive horses who get in trouble need it more than all the “good” horses combined.

Now, hope the owner hires a competent trainer; someone who understands behavior, human and horse, and sees the big picture. Then, grab a beer. The mare didn’t get this way in a day. We know this isn’t normal behavior. And we know that she gave calming signals that were not understood. We know that even if she’s an alpha mare, she deserved better.

If she came here, I’d take her back to the beginning. Listening to her calming signals, I might ask quietly for just one step. If she looks away, a calming signal, I’ll take a breath. Then I’ll ask quieter. If I can tell she considers doing it, I’ll exhale and step back. In the process of successive approximation, I’ll gradually ask for more, but I’ll be slow because she’s lost trust. I’ll look past her anger and talk to her anxiety.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t baby talk and coo. I will use strong body language, I will control my emotions. I won’t attack her space, just as I will be very clear about my own. I will not let my guard down for a moment, but I’ll have a cool exterior. It will require perception, impeccable timing, and precise response. I won’t be perfect; it’ll be a work in progress because she will require my very best work and I’ll thank her for that. I’ll train her “respect” by showing her consistency and focus.  I’ll let her know that I heard her loud and clear. Then I’ll encourage her to quietly continue the conversation.

I will always believe that it’s humans, (a war-like species,) who do not understand what respect means. When I see humans teach “respect” by demonstrating brutality, to animals or other humans, respect is the last word that comes to my mind. It might be the only thing that this mare and I agree on in the beginning.

What should the rider have done in this situation?  Get you and your horse out safely. Good. Don’t encourage people to try to dominate her; it hasn’t worked in the past and she doesn’t belong to you.  Good again, you did the right thing. Then hope that her owner doesn’t hire a bully with a grudge. Because this is a smart mare with a long memory, and she doesn’t suffer fools.

This is our mantra. Repeat after me: I’m only human. I’ll try to do better.

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

Calming Signals: The Dance of the Halter

We’re breaking in a new farrier here at Infinity Farm. The new guy is soft-spoken, uses a nice pink hoof-stand, and has an easy laugh that the mares like. We’re like any other herd. We’ve got some quirks. Not all of us got a great introduction to humans.

The farrier and I trim our way through the pens. The geldings are dependable and the mares tolerant. Lilith, the carbon-dated donkey, turns to face us, lifts her nose level with her ears, and brays like a fog horn. Her feet are fine this visit and we’re all relieved.

Bhim’s next. He came here from a rescue for training a few years back and I’m still working on it. I consider him a bit complicated. He considers me expendable. The farrier waits while I move forward with Bhim’s halter. We do a slow-motion dance; two steps this way, a dramatic pause and our shoulders turn. I know we must agree on this part. He continues to think I might go nuts. I continue to out-wait his low opinion of humans. A few more steps of the dance, slow and deliberate, and the halter is on. We walk back to the farrier who says, “Will you teach all my mini clients to do that?”

Funny you should mention that –there’s little I like to train more. I love a nuanced greeting, a dance of equals, each of us offering something positive. Haltering Bhim is a process. But that’s true for all horses.

Sometimes we chase them till they’re out of breath, the predator way. Sometimes we coyote-coax them with treats. Sometimes, (my least favorite), we march right up, pull the halter on snug, and pull them away from breakfast.

In each of these examples, the horses were giving calming signals. In each example, the horses were speaking more eloquently than their human.

A Calming Signal is the subtle language of horses. It’s a peaceful message to let us know they feel us there, disturbing the Zen, and they are no threat to us. We usually answer by letting them know we are an unpredictable war-like species.

Our haltering method is usually a complacent habit, even with hard to catch horses, and not something we think about much. At the same time, that initial moment of greeting creates a first impression that a horse remembers.

Let me put it another way: How do you like your significant other to greet you? By threatening or bribing or just grabbing you by the hair and pulling you along? It’s no surprise when a horse isn’t responsive in the saddle if we’ve already let them know that we’re lousy communicators on the ground.

How a horse greets us is his honest expression and if we mistake that for disobedience or stupidity or laziness, we are the ones with the problem.

Reset: Complacency is your enemy. It makes you dull-headed and lead-footed… not traits horses appreciate, but more than that, you’re missing the fun.

Before entering the pen or stall, remind yourself of the wild luck and hard work that put you in front of this gate. Take a breath and soften your gaze. Check yourself for anxiety or expectations. Use your peripheral vision and listen to your surroundings. When you’re presentable, enter the pen and stop.

Don’t “hide” your halter behind your back, horses see that as the first sign something weird is going on. If your horse moves away, you’ve got some work to do. If your horse runs up to mug you for treats, same thing.

It’s that stoic horse who stands where he is with his eyes half-closed that is the most interesting to me. Does he pretend you aren’t there? Or is he preparing for a loud advance?

Take just a step or two toward him and say whatever you want because words don’t matter. Ask for his eye. Think of it as a greeting more eloquent that words. Ask with your eye and breathe. If he moves away, know that you were too loud. Or it might be that your history is too loud. If he doesn’t acknowledge it at all, know he heard you and then ask even smaller.

If you want to know how you could possibly ask smaller than your eye looking at his eye, then you’re on the right path.

Reset your previous reset: We are predators by nature. In comparison to horses, we are loud and obnoxious by accident of birth. Even when we think we’re quiet, we roar. Take another breath and empty your mind of the loud jangle of expectations. Quiet the tick-tick-tick of your mental stopwatch. Let your shoulders drop the weight of needing to get it right all the time. Pooch out your belly and trust the ground to hold you.

Then ask for his eye in a lackadaisical way, because you are pretending to be free of expectation. If your horse flicks an ear or blinks an eye, that’s your reward. You receive this gift without judgment about its size or expense because you are an adult who’s above that kind of spoiled-child behavior. Exhale and let him know that you heard him. Say thank you with a pause of time.

About now, your horse looks right at you. Take another breath and maybe a small step sideways. The dance starts with a subtle invitation. Perhaps he moves a hind leg to re-position himself and so perhaps you take a step back this time. Across the distance of the pen, he looks at you with new eyes, slightly shifting his weight, and  pondering the possibility…

The halter was a prop. Something real just happened; he volunteered to meet you in the middle. The world has shifted. Say Good Boy and let him watch you leave the pen.

Then feel your reward. It’s so light, you could be imagining it. If you tried to clutch at it, it would skitter away like seeds from the head of a dandelion. So, you let it be. The best things grow, not with force, but with freedom. It’s an invitation to dance beyond ropes and words, and maybe even gravity.

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

Concept Clinics: A different approach

Mainstay

I’ve been thinking for a while now about the process of learning. It could have something to do with the number of times trainers told me to do things that didn’t make sense to me. Sometimes threads would come together and I’d have a flash. Some things took years to dawn on me. Now that I’m the trainer, I try to do better connecting the dots.

Then I read about linear thinking (a sequential progression to a logical end)  versus non-linear or spherical thinking (connected thought in multiple areas, rather than one, based on the concept that there is more than one way to apply logic.) Non-linear is more creative and dimensional. It gives a rider more ways to understand–like having several doors into a barn instead of just one.

It’s a smarter way to train horses. As a professional, I depend on a toolbox brimming with techniques because horses are each sentient unique creatures and one size does not fit all. I notice the same thing is true of humans.

And ok, it happens to be the way my mind works, too. So I’ve applied that idea, and a few others I know about how people learn, and designed three clinics that explain what I’m thinking.

Concept Clinics give riders an opportunity to explore a related group of ideas with exercises designed to clarify and deepen the awareness and practice of fundamental principles of communication and training.

Calming Signals If you are standing next to your horse and he looks away, do you think he’s distracted or even disrespectful? When your horse yawns, is he sleepy or bored? If he moves slowly, is he lazy?   Calming Signals is a concept clinic on the ground. We’ll learn to read and respond to calming signals with special attention to comprehension (active listening, intention, and focus). It’s a different approach to haltering, leading exercises, and your body language. I’ll say breathe a few thousand times. We’ll spend the rest of the day doing in-hand horse agility, where the conversation is the most fun.

Dressage Rhymes with Massage. If your horse is young, sound, and has had all the advantages, it takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to warm his joints. And that same twenty minutes for you. Warm up is by far the most important part of the ride for strength and positive attitude. This is a relaxed and forward Concept Clinic, using warm-up methods designed to help a horse be physically and mentally responsive. We’ll start with exercises to systematically warm-up and connect your horse. Clinic includes how to ride circles, riding balanced transitions and a different approach to asking for bend, as well as the use of a neck-ring, long rein, and correct contact. This clinic makes young horses steadier, midlife horses stronger, and elder horses more supple.

Rhythm and Dance Clinic. Rhythm is the foundation of the Dressage training pyramid. Rhythmic movement promotes relaxation (walking, grazing, trotting) and bad reactions always include a loss of rhythm (spooking, bucking, bolting.) We’ll use ground pole exercises to balance transitions, with special focus on the use of seat and legs to encourage rhythm and alter stride within gaits, using half-halts and lengthenings. This clinic includes Riding to Music and finishes with a quadrille or group ride.

I’ll continue my traditional clinics, but I’m also offering Concept clinics. (More information) If you’re interested in hosting one, I’m happy to travel, and I also keep a list of barns looking to partner with other barns on clinics.

Right now, I’d appreciate your feedback on the idea. What would you think about this sort of event? Is there a topic that would really benefit from this approach? How do you think and learn?

Thank you, I appreciate your thoughts.

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

First, I watched Brentina’s retirement ceremony. Then Secretariat’s last race and Valegro’s final Olympia freestyle. Who doesn’t need to watch Aldrich’s one-tempi victory lap one more time? This part is embarrassing. I searched for a ridiculously sappy scene from that old movie, The Electric Horseman, where Redford sets the stallion free. It’s a kind of retirement, too, and the camera slo-mos his gallop toward a herd of mustangs. He’s got a gallon of baby oil slathered on him (the stallion of course, who cares about Redford) and his muscles ripple and flex as his stride lengthens. Slow motion photography was made for this and they milk it, changing camera angles in a way that doesn’t make sense but shows more skin. You know in the real world, he’ll be muddy, scraped up, and half-lame in a day, if a varmint hole doesn’t kill him sooner, but the music swells…

And then I made myself stop. It’s just that retirement conversations come up a lot these last months and it’s never too soon to start planning.

The thing I like about retirement ceremonies is that the horses are sound and fit and bright, mugging for the crowd, who love them like their own. We celebrate them at the top of their game and wave from our chairs. Real life is more complicated.

How did retirement get such a bad name in our own barns? There’s someone who’ll comment that she’s riding her 35-year-old horse, and another who bites her lip because her horse retired at 19. Can we set our emotions aside for a moment and talk reality? I know it’s impossible.

Comparing horses never works. A lanky long-backed Thoroughbred ages differently than a compact round Arabian because of accident of birth. A performance horse might have more miles on him than a backyard grade horse, but he also might have gotten a higher standard of care. Add in the wild cards: injuries, being a kid horse, your location. And no one denies that horses live longer these days. Long enough to suffer chronic issues even longer.

Comparing people is even harder. Some aren’t the best riders. Some say they “only” trail ride but that means packing in for a week in mountain terrain, while other’s trail ride in their two-acre pasture. Some compete their horses, trying to improve their riding skills to progress farther in their discipline, while making their horses stronger and steadier. Some happily stay at entry levels of jumping or pleasure riding or dressage forever.

One thing riders have in common is that we like to think our horses love being ridden. I’m not going to be popular for saying this, but I doubt it. Not every rider, not forever. Some of us understand and work hard to ride better for the horse. Then some of our horses are stoic and it’s easier think it’s all good than listen to their quiet signals about things we don’t want to hear.

At some point, we need to stop valuing what they do for us and shift to being grateful for what they’ve done

I don’t know what’s right for your horse. I do know that considering his retirement is good planning. If you have a young horse, know that you have time. Go slow and build a solid foundation for your horse’s future. Train with compassion.

If you have a midlife horse, recognize that these are precious days. His prime is finite and the view from the top is beautiful. Work him with kindness, to keep him strong and supple. Be aware in the moment. Be gobsmacked.

And if you have an elder, listen to him closely. Remind him of his golden days and respect what it must feel like to be a flight animal whose body is losing strength as years pass. Then try to be as generous as he has been.

I want to share two elder stories because my clients inspire me.

There is a gooney-sweet chestnut gelding grazing in a pasture today. I met him and his rider a few years ago. He was as undone a horse as I’ve seen, not quite sound and not quite young. His owner was an accomplished rider but we spent months on a lunge line, letting him find the ground. Convincing him that nothing bad was going to happen until finally his poll relaxed, finally he exhaled. There was a glorious summer when he competed at intro dressage. His tests were not brilliant. Instead he was steady and relaxed, making round circles and gliding across the diagonals. I was in awe that he was capable of a free walk.

These last months have been up and down. No expense was spared, but his back has still dropped some. We worked to make him stronger, but gravity might be winning. With sadness and no fanfare, he went home. We miss him here but he’s been reunited with an old one-eyed mare and the grass is green. Writing about him is my version of a retirement celebration. I imagine thousands cheering him from the stands.

My other story is about a lesson I gave recently to a rider with fine gaited mare of a certain age. It’s taken some time to get started; she’s had the full run of vet help for her stiff body and an ulcer supplement is working. The lesson started at the walk, but the mare stopped from time to time. We didn’t rush her. The rider was generous with wither scratches while I talked about rhythm to relax her topline and leg cues to supple her barrel. Her walk became more fluid. We did a couple of exercises that released her shoulders a fraction and finally, an exercise to ask her stiff hind legs to step under a tiny bit. She tried a tiny bit. She was thoughtful, feeling her old body soften, you know, a tiny bit.

A spectator might not have noticed her effort and left in ten minutes. We noticed. In the end, the rider found a rhythm that helped the mare feel a little better in her body–a mounted massage of sorts. We never did more than a walk. The lesson ended early and the mare licked and chewed. Her eyes were soft, and I might have kissed her nose. Dressage is a gift for older horses if you do it right.

Thinking of retirement takes some getting used to; we’d be smart to start when they’re young. I think the thing we are mad at, the thing we want to control, is time. We are never satisfied in the moment because a good horse will always make us greedy for more. Living in that slo-mo shot of our horses getting old, in front of our own eyes, strangles our hearts even worse than a sappy scene in an old movie.

Sometimes we forget that horses belong to the stars and moon; they were never ours in the first place.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Bend… Like a Crescent Moon.

I arrived at the barn mid-fight. The barn manager was refereeing a dust-up between a trainer and a boarder who was not his client. The trainer had tied a horse’s head, snubbed down tight, to its side and left in a stall. The boarder went into the stall and untied the horse. The trainer cried trespassing and the boarder cried cruelty. From over my shoulder, I heard the trainer growl, “Mind your own business!” at the boarder, an unapologetic older woman.

Horses usually like to bend one way better than the other; a soft side and a stiff side. You could think of it kind of like being right-handed, only with horses most are more willing to bend to the left. It means the horse would be weaker on one side which translates to a lack of balance. In other words, the horse is never straight. It’s natural for the horse, but if we want the horse strong and balanced, we work both sides. Ambidextrous is the human version of straight.

I heard an anecdotal reason once, that a horse’s bend preference depends on which direction he was curled in utero. I don’t know if it’s true, but it stuck with me because it reminds me that bend is “natural” and it’s an easy visual to understand.

Bend means a gentle arc from a horse’s nose to his tail. That the inside rib-cage is slightly compressed and the outside rib-cage slightly expanded. Think riding a circle. It’s why one direction is easier than the other.

I have no excuse for this trainer but I know what he thought he was doing. His theory was that tying the horse around means the horse fights with himself, rather than a human. It’s a common misunderstanding, like pulling a horse’s head around to your foot while mounted. They say a rider should work the stiff side twice as much as the soft side, too. Common ideas, but that doesn’t make them right.

The problem is that it gets adversarial quickly. It’s the frustration of egg-shaped circles and wrong leads. We decide the horse is disobedient, so we kick more and pull our inside reins. We drill that stiff side repeatedly, trying to soften it, but our resistance creates even more stiffness. Some of us escalate to a physical fight while others set a hard hand and hold a grudge. And yes, resort to tying his head to his side and leaving. It gets personal.

That’s the disconnect. Remember your mental image of a foal in utero. It’s not disobedience. The horse isn’t resisting you out of defiance. He’s literally stiff. Think of how stiff feels; you would defend a sore shoulder. You’d lose balance and straightness just like they do. Only theirs isn’t an injury or an attitude. They’re born this way. It’s natural.

We kindly want my horse balanced and strong and flexible, but from this standpoint wouldn’t it be smarter to massage them into it and not pick a fight? And lucky us, we have the good use of an inside leg to do it.

Start over with new understanding. Walk a large circle his easy way, probably left. Feel your sit-bones rise and fall with his stride, as your legs lightly follow the sway of his barrel. Begin by taking stock of your rib-cage. Inhale to inflate your lungs. Feel your ribs symmetrical and your shoulders level. If you aren’t sitting straight, your horse can’t balance your weight evenly. As you walk the circle, you have a slight turn to your waist; your right shoulder is slightly back.

Visualize bend like the soft edge of a crescent moon. Bend refers to that sweet outside arc of the horse, so counter-intuitive as it is, forget your inside hand. Drop your eyes for a moment and look at your horse’s withers between your reins. You want to ask your horse to shift his withers toward the outside rein. Think withers. Forget his neck, feel of your inside leg at his girth. Each time his barrel swings to the outside, pulse with your inside calf, gently asking his shoulder to release just a hair at a time. There is no force, just a rhythmic swing. It almost feels like a leg yield out on a circle, but again, that inside leg is relaxed and just cuing once per stride. Slow.

Imagine a line from your inside leg that travels diagonally through the horse to his outside shoulder. Ride that line, ask your horse to step into that outside rein. Your outside rein should work like the rail of the arena, containing and supporting the bend, which you’re remind yourself a million times, refers to the outside arc of the horse, and so, leave the inside rein alone. Foot!

There’s a dressage phrase you might consider tattooing somewhere: Inside foot to outside hand. 

Reverse and walk the other way on the circle. Now you are going his stiff way, but his rhythm is still working, so you continue the process. Be slow and quiet. In the beginning, he’ll be stiff and you’ll imagine that your inside leg is like a heating pad, gently warming as you ask his withers to the outside. Your inside leg pulses just as softly, and the response you get is probably less, but that’s fair for a stiff side. If your horse relaxes his neck longer, that’s huge. Just walk and ask, inside leg to outside rein, for bend, but reward him generously for the smallest effort. Massage him soft, and notice that your inside hand is still not pulling. Be patient. If he isn’t soft at the walk, nothing will improve at the trot and the canter will be worse.

From here continue to change direction frequently. Rather than naming the bad side, reverse so often that you can’t remember which side is which. Then, since you aren’t fighting one side, neither is he. Let both bends flow from one to the other walking serpentines and circles until there is no stiff or soft. Feel his balance and fluidity. Feel that same emotional balance in yourself.

Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Touchy About Bits.

Confession #1: There was a time that I would have sold my soul for a spade bit with 12″ shanks. My hands were thick and tense and I didn’t breathe. Naturally, my horse was braced and tense and he didn’t breathe, either. Through gritted teeth, I knew my gelding would behave if I just had a stronger bit. Instead, my trainer took my bridle away. I think she just couldn’t stand to watch me torment my stoic horse one moment longer. It’s what good trainers do …and I’m still grateful.

Confession #2: Passover and Easter are about forgiveness and I’m holding a grudge. It happened last summer and I’m still cranky. A cowboy ‘splained to me (like I couldn’t see) how Spanish spade bits work. He had a certain tone as he ‘splained the horse has to learn how to carry it (like the horse can’t already tell that if he lifts his nose he’ll give himself a lobotomy.) In a situation like this I have world-class eye contact. His horse was in my arena in a halter because I don’t allow illegal bits. The good gelding still refused to walk forward.

Later, I went online and googled a few videos by folks who looked like they’d won an extreme cowboy dressing challenge. I listened to them pontificate, candy-coat, and try to normalize how these bits work. I understood how a novice rider might even believe them. But I come by my skepticism honestly. Like the western trainer who took my bridle away, dressage riders use simple snaffles. All breeds, all ages, all snaffles, as they try to figure out what “elastic” means where elbows are concerned.

I have no sense of humor about bits. I stopped going to the local donkey and mule show years ago because I couldn’t stand to see the gaping mouths and pained eyes. Somehow it was harder to watch on longears. Western rope reins and slobber straps are heavy, never releasing pressure on the horse’s jaw. Bitless riders can end up pulling twice as hard. Others ride on a really long rein so they won’t bump our horse’s mouth, but then panic and grab the reins hard and fast, ending up being twice as brutal as riding on contact would have been in the first place. And some just try way too hard and wind up with a mental/physical death grip, like I did.

It’s mainly the western world where people think that horses grow out of snaffles. Silly notion. It isn’t true. I think what happens is about the time a horse gets tired of having his face banged on, like my gelding was, and starts tossing his head, all the “experts” standing around recommend a stronger bit. Then the pain gets ratcheted up until the horse shuts down. Some horses blow up instead, reacting to the pain with anxiety, and they “graduate” to an even more severe bit. Metal on bone.

Using a stronger bit is like winning an argument, not because you’re right, but because you’re holding a gun.

Now I’m the trainer, and listening to me, you’d think bits were my biggest complaint but that’s ridiculous. I know a snaffle can be as much of a weapon as a leverage bit depending on the brutality of the rider.

In my fantasy world, we would all agree that bits are not the problem. We’d stop blaming our tack. We’d especially stop blaming our horses for their response to pain. Once and for all, we’d take responsibility for our hands. I believe hands are the biggest roadblock keeping long-time riders from becoming advanced riders. Poor contact is a double message, like having your foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. Crazy-making.

In defense, most riders can barely feel it happening. We hold our reins, threaded through our grasp from the pinky side of our hands, up through our palm, to the top or thumb side. As we start, our hands are slightly above the horse’s withers and about shoulder’s distance apart. Dandy. If they stayed there your horse wouldn’t complain.

Maybe it’s gravity or insecurity or frustration, but it starts with just a few ounces of pressure as the bottom, or pinky side, of our hands drops to rest on the rein. The horse feels it immediately and tightens a little to protect his mouth. The rider feels that tightness and adds a bit more weight to her hand, trying to control his initial anxiety.  Now the horse has lost some of his forward movement and all he knows is that it’s more pressure on his mouth. The rider is getting more nervous, so the reins are actually being pulled, down and back. The horse receives the cue to brace from his rider and starts to feel claustrophobic. Doesn’t his rider know that if his feet are moving, he has to move his head, too? He tosses his head to remind her. Now that the horse is tossing his head, the rider, well, you know…

If you horse asks you, either politely or not, to reconsider your hands, take the cue. I have a few suggestions.

First, and I know this for a fact, you have a clenched jaw. Your horse does, too. Take a breath and release your jaw. Repeat. Then repeat again. Forever, until both of you forget there was ever tension between you.

Next, ride in a neck ring. I described it in my last blog about contact. If your experience with a neck ring leaves you frustrated, feeling out of control, and screaming in exasperation, it’s a sure sign your hands are too hard. Take a break for your heart rate to return to normal and remember you have seat and legs for a reason.

Or try reversing the direction the reins thread through your hands, like in this photo. It will feel incredibly awkward, but better you than your horse, so stick with it. The first thing you’ll notice is that you can’t push down on the rein, and as you feel vulnerable -like you’ve been disarmed- notice that your horse is quieter in his head.

It’s impossible to forget that riding is an art. ART. Our legs and spine work like shock absorbers, so the horse’s motion moves through us instead of bouncing us like cinder blocks in the saddle. That same elasticity must continue through our shoulders, down past our elbows and wrists, and through sensitive reins to his fragile mouth. We must surrender our bodies to the horse’s rhythm and learn the difference between control and cooperation. The thing that makes us feel vulnerable is the same thing that makes us feel free, even at the walk.

So, are back to back long-winded blogs about contact too much? The horses won’t mind and I’m whittling away at my grudge. It isn’t surprising, my horse was always the kinder and more forgiving half of our partnership.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Touchy About Contact

Question from a reader with a mouth-sensitive green horse: ” …when I watch a video of me riding I worry that I am giving her too much room to interpret what I want, not enough direction. I know you hate a focus on the hands but could you write something about where that balance is? Too tight versus too giving? How do I know what’s right for her?”

Okay, Jill, but I warn you. The only thing harder than writing about contact is teaching it! Our brains immediately have a runaway. We call it a “frame” –that vision of a soft horse with its head on the vertical, but a “frame” is a hard-edged thing that hangs on the wall, and rule number one is that a horse’s poll must be relaxed. As riders, we want round, soft horses. As horses, they want rhythm. The rest is negotiation.

One way to think about contact is the old car comparison. Legs and seat asking the horse to go forward are like the gas pedal. Anything the impedes the horse from moving on, like reins and a bit, are the brakes. It’s a conflicting message to put your foot on the gas pedal and still ride the brake but that’s kind of what we are asking. It’s confusing for horses and riders, so bottom line: Whatever his head is doing, the answer is forward. The more we try to micro manage his head, the fussier his head gets. So, forward with quiet hands. Let the push from his behind straighten him out.

About now, people think a bitless bridle might be the answer. No metal; hooray. But it doesn’t correct your hand problem. A dead pull on the rein is still going to make a horse lose rhythm. I like bitless. You might be able to buy some tolerance from your horse not using a bit but again, if the hands get louder than your seat, it’s like riding the brakes.

Or in your case, since your hands are too light, it probably means that when things come apart, you grab the reins. I’m guessing, but it’s common sense for humans. In other words, your horse might go from no contact to harsh contact and in the end, the threat of being grabbed in the face isn’t much different from a rider with hard hands. I’m guessing that’s where her fussy head comes from. That’s half of it.

Most of us got started on horses by being warned that our hands could hurt our horses. Truth. We learned to lightly rest our hands on the horse’s withers, with the aim being that our hands would be quiet. It’s a good place to start. First, do no harm.

The downside, and what I am guessing your half of this is about, is that in fear of hurting our horses, we lose confidence and do something that translates to the horse as an incoherent mumble on the reins. We think too much and they get confused.

It’s hard to have confidence on a green horse, but it’s the thing they need from us the most. Let the horse walk out several steps before asking for any rein aid. Once that rhythm is established, your hands must follow the movement. (I know you aren’t breathing in this part. Breathe.)

It turns out that it’s nearly impossible for a human to focus on hands, and continue to follow a horse’s movement with our seats… and so the horse loses forward, or even slows to a stop, because we’ve cued it with our seat.

Avoidance of the bit happens just after a loss of rhythm or forward. Some horses twist their heads from side to side, some horses toss their head up, making their back hollow, and some horses evade by dropping their noses behind the vertical. It seems like something should be corrected in his face but the real issue is that he lost forward, so leave the bit alone and ask him to go on while letting the horse feel your hands on the reins.

This is the reason I hate to talk hands. Riding is multitasking –like patting your head while rubbing circles on your belly. It must always be hand/seat together. So as you read words about hands, you must always hear a simultaneous loud chant: Forward, forward, forward.

Now we are at the part of contact that is really crazy-making for riders. Horses are individuals. Temperament and confirmation matter. Some horses will tense to avoid inflexible contact. Some will do the opposite and actually kind of push out with their nose to complete the contact. They don’t want their faces pulled on, but they seek a balance or connection. It gives them confidence. Keep an open mind and close your fingers on the reins and ask honestly for what you want. If you’ve been giving “coyote” cues, stop being a sly predator, and just say it. Use contact but listen closely and adjust yourself. Be ready for a full release if you get the answer you want.

The thing I recommend the most when learning contact, is to use a neck ring. Here’s Jasper with a simple rope, but the Ttouch site has nice ones, too.

Hold the neck ring in your hands along with the reins, and let your horse feel the ring on his shoulders before the rein. The ring can have a firm contact and the ring cues his shoulder –which is actually the part of his body that turns. It’s genius.

Why would we try to control a thousand-pound horse by tormenting a few inches at the end of his nose?

Then, seat and legs, body to body, forward! With elastic elbows and soft wrists, turn your waist and let your horse feel that turn through your body. Remind yourself that we steer with bodies and not reins.

If you feel resistance, release and ask again. Here’s how I describe contact in another blog :

Contact is like holding hands with someone you are so comfortable with that there’s overlap where they begin and you end. It happens when minds and hearts are swept away an effortless beat of rhythm. Contact is the place between individuals where respect and love embrace.

Good contact is moving forward through space without gravity or dependence on anything more concrete than the flow of movement that is oneness.

If my answers about contact all sound too vague and abstract, that’s because one size does not fit all. A rider shouldn’t take control and dominate a horse with hard hands, metal on bone, but rather find a happy medium between that and mushy hands, by asking questions and listening to your individual and unique horse. Partnership means negotiation.

Then trust your horse to be the best judge of your contact.

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

Circling Back: How We Became One.

We were hooked and it was written all over us. The first weird looks passed between our parents. We were too young to know anyone else. It didn’t matter if there were horses close by; some of us were in the country but just as many of us were in city apartments. We squealed at horsies! from car windows or stared at pictures in books we were too little to read. We cantered in the house when horses only lived inside our TV.

Eventually we turned into old women with squint-wrinkles around our eyes and some sort of chronic lameness. Through decades of life, we might have changed homes and changed jobs and changed spouses… but feelings about horses never changed. Some would say that we’re past our riding prime, but I’m confident that the residue of those crazy young rides has made us better with horses now. Probably better with our own species as well.

Horses are like a beautiful water-color rinse washed over top of the ink drawing of our lives. It’s the water we swim in while living on dry land. It’s the herd we belong to before and through and beyond our other connections. It isn’t just that we were born this horse-crazy way. Much to the chagrin of those around us, we stay that way. I think we take it with us when we walk on from this world.

What is this hook that horses have in us? It’s the question I’ve asked for as long as I’ve known horses. Unless I was busy actually grooming or riding or training at the moment. Then it was only in the back of my mind.

Of course we love animals but horses are different. We play favorites. It isn’t the same the mess of complex and contradictory feelings we have for people. Horses feel more honest and true.

When philosophers consider the nature of God and the metaphysics of the universe, surely they must consider the central position that horses hold. If they don’t, we know they’ve fallen short of the thing artists have known since the time of cave paintings; it was always about humans and horses.

Is love even the right word? It feels a bit shallow. We began this journey before there was choice or reason; before we knew the word for how we would feel. We rode when there were no horses. It was a prehistoric promise, sealed with horse dander and spit. Or things that would evolve into that eventually.

Maybe back then some DNA got mixed up in the primordial mush and we’re actually a slightly different species. That would explain a lot over the centuries –and eventually at our kitchen tables.

But somewhere in the middle of our lives, life happened. Plans went sideways. Some of us gave up horses for a while and some of us gave up everything but horses. Some of us finally got our first pony fifty years later. All of us stayed true to that prehistoric promise with horses; we always circle back.

Now that I’m older, there are some rides I make myself refuse. There are days that it breaks my heart to cautious, but I have a herd that depends on me. It’s lead mare logic; I wasn’t born knowing it. I do all the barn work my body allows and then remember the kindness that all past-prime horses deserve. I try to practice that same kindness on myself but never quite feel deserving.

Perhaps younger riders look at me like I’m a crazy old nag. I smile and wave, stubborn as a pony, working to show them the patience that my first horse had for me, back when I fell short of my horse’s withers and wisdom.

We’re the sort who never quite settle the struggle to find our balance, drunk with horses and gasping with rude want. We’ve been loud, crying or pouting if we can’t ride. There is nothing polite about passion. Other times, while making the tough choices, we felt as old as sticks and dirt with the bitter maturity of our decisions. Still horses never change for us.

We have a secret that others don’t know. While other women dream of romance book lovers or foreign shores, we dream of a horse who comes to us with an invitation. Personally, I think it’s a white horse –like my Grandfather Horse. He was perfectly ordinary. We all had one just like him. The one that we knew before we were born. The one who never leaves us.

You come for me, behind my eyelids now, but you come. I’m selfish, I fear, to call you to me but I hold no respect for rainbow bridges or fairy tales.

With closed eyes, I climb up the mounting block. That left hip pinches; it’s how I know this is only partly a dream. With one last grounded breath, my leg slides over and I ease onto his back. My shoulders go broad and my spine straightens as it all comes flooding back.

My breath is deep. I was born to sit right here. I feel his ribs expand as he breathes with me and some jagged pieces begin to mend. One more breath and my busy mind settles deep into my heart with a sigh. He’s taught me that oneness means the parts of the rider become united. Horses are that way already.

It doesn’t matter where we go now, sauntering through the water-color wash. The ride stays real long after the horse who shared it has walked on. We are the lucky ones.

Hold tight. They always circle back.

[Dedicated to the friend-readers who are “between” horses and longing, on the seventh anniversary of this Relaxed and Forward blog. Thank you; I’m so grateful to all who share their long ride here.]

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

What Are Your Legs Doing? (Half-halt Help)

 

How are the half-halts coming? Does a breath and a light thigh pulse work? Or are your legs exhausted by the end of the ride? Is your horse dull to your leg aids? And by that I mean, have you nagged him into a stupor? (There I go blaming the rider again.)

This first question is deceptive: Are your legs and seat soft in the saddle? Can you tell? It isn’t as easy as it sounds because it’s instinct, once our feet have let go of the earth, to grab on with our legs, thighs tight, and calves tense. It’s a reflex and if we’re a bit timid, then even more so.

Be clear: Instinct and intuition tell us to hold on with our legs. It’s the wrong thing to do, but we come by it honestly. Not that it matters to your horse.

The problem with tense legs is that it means that your sit-bones aren’t deep in the saddle, but rather suspending you slightly above the saddle, making a disconnect between you and your horse. To maintain that position, your shoulders want to come forward and your knees want to hold. As your balance changes, your horse might slow up, thinking you aren’t stable. He’s right, but you might not be aware of much of this. You’re busy using your horse as a ThighMaster –and rock hard thighs is not the message of lightness and relaxation you mean to send your horse.

Surprise! Your horse doesn’t want to go forward. We’ve been taught to kick. Or we’re frustrated, so we kick. There’s no response, because it all feels bad to your horse. So you kick harder; your leg never rests. If that doesn’t work, you try spurs (not the real purpose of spurs, by the way) and a whip (not the real purpose for a whip, either.) So, you complain that your horse is lazy and won’t go forward.

At least you have kind hands. Well, you don’t. If the rest of your body is tense and fighting, your hands are doing the same, which means you’re hurting his mouth. No wonder he isn’t moving forward. And you aren’t breathing in any more air than a chicken. But some jerk has told you that you can’t lose this fight because if your horse doesn’t respect you, all is lost. So you double down.

What do I see from the ground? Your horse is mirroring you. His back is tense and his neck is stiff. As you kick, your thighs tense, pushing you farther out of the saddle. With that extra weight on his withers, he resists more. None of this is good, but worst of all, as your aids get stronger and bigger, I begin to see his ribs tense, and the muscle that runs from his armpit to his flank seizes up. He’s defending himself by tensing his ribs. Defending himself from your leg and your seat. He has no idea what you are asking now; he’s isn’t breathing either.

This was never your intention. You know your horse is sensitive enough to be bothered by flies. He probably feels your legs more than you do. There was an instant where things started to snowball to adversarial; so quick you don’t remember making that choice. A rider is always cuing either relaxation or tension.

Finally, do your horse a favor and show some real leadership. Just stop. Release the reins. Say Good Boy because you attacked him like a mountain lion and he had more patience for you, than you did for him.

Consider doing yin yoga. Become familiar with the Butterfly Pose. Sitting or laying down, soles of feet together, and let your knees open; breathe and let gravity do the work. It will feel tight but you’ll just sit with that. Let an eternity pass. Like two whole minutes.

Your horse doesn’t care about yoga, but if you were inadvertently giving him a halt cue with your thighs (you were), then you need to be introduced to the muscles he feels all the time.

Next ride, if your horse is safe, and naturally, you have your helmet on, begin your ride at the walk without stirrups. Feel your legs long and let your sit-bones move with your horse’s back. Let your hip flexor, or more specifically, your psoas muscle, become fluid and soft. The front of your body opens and your heels hang directly below your shoulder, perfect. Feel your feet heavy and your ankles soft.

As your horse walks, your legs flow with the movement of his flank. It’s a slight sway that travels from your sit-bones through your waist, up to your shoulders, and down to your toenails. You could carry an egg under your knee without breaking it. You don’t move more than your horse does, but most of all, you don’t brace your legs against his movement.

When you finally do put your foot into your stirrup, you’ll notice that it feels constrictive. Yes, a stirrup does make a foot brace a bit, but your job is to continue as if you weren’t using a stirrup. Let your weight be on the outside edge of your foot, almost bow-legged. Your leg should feel as light and loose as a bird wing on his flanks.

Now the process of asking your horse to respond to your leg can begin. He’s gone dead on his sides because the pressure never stopped. Now use tiny cues. Inhale and ask him to walk on. If he moves one step and stops, reward him. Refuse to demean him, and yourself, by nagging.

Ask for a bit more. Jiggle your ankle but don’t use muscles. Let the movement feel like a buzzing bug to him. Think energy, not force. Then reward him again, for giving you a chance to do better.

This is about successive approximation. He’s still waiting for you to kick hard and that trust needs healing. So you reward anything that is an approximately the direction you want to go, while refusing to fight. Once he starts walking, follow his body naturally, but stop cuing. Trust him to do his job without nagging. Let him stride on; let your legs rest. In a few strides, just using your sit-bones, ask for longer strides and when he does that, stop cuing and let him carry it on. Now the two of you are conversing politely.

In order for a horse to be responsive to your leg, your leg has to do less. It’s counter intuitive –just like everything else about riding.

….

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