Part One: The Strong Silent Type (Of Horse)

wm-andante-head

I’ve said it before: While growing up, I saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon more often than I saw my relatives. My father oversaw the TV and he liked real men like Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. (I’m sure you can guess what he thought about James Dean.)

Later, like lots of us, I bought the notion of a strong, silent leading man when it came to movie star crushes. They had square jaws and walked with a swagger, always a little mysterious. I should stress here that they were acting. It was my mid-thirties before I connected the crash between my taste in movie idols and my constant whining that the man I was dating wouldn’t talk to me. Duh.

It took longer for it to dawn on me that my horse was stoic, too. His resistance wasn’t easy to read. He hid lameness and acted tough. He did what I asked, even if it was too much. Neither of us wanted to admit that we probably held a grudge. We liked each other, so instead it was more like passive aggression on both sides. Truth be told, you can’t force a horse talk to you anymore than you can a man. In hindsight, I think some of our training problems were more from ulcer pain than anything, but again, he didn’t give me the usual signs that a more reactive horse might have. I’m still apologizing for that.

Disclaimer: I am extremely aware that trainers love to classify horses into personality types that over-simplify horses, so it’s easier for novice horse owners to make assumptions. None of us are that easy to pigeon-hole.

Instead, I consider most horses on a continuum, one end being stoic and the other end being demonstrative. I deliberately choose these vague words, give lots of room for individuality, and always remember that it isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.

That said, people like stoic horses because they seem quiet and easy on the surface. They’re commonly lesson horses, therapy horses, and kid horses.

Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com– Stoicism: the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint. Synonyms: patience, forbearance, resignation, fortitude, endurance, acceptance, tolerance.

Does this definition make you a bit sad? What sounds heroic in a movie character is kind of soul-killing for a creature as beautiful as a horse. If you are a dominating rider, you might want that kind of hostage mentality, but if you are hoping for an equine partner, this is leadership without heart.

Old timers had another word they used for stoic horses who seemed almost too easy to read: Counterfeit. They looked like the real thing, but there was something not quite right.

It isn’t that stoic horses are dishonest; they’re subtle communicators. If our cues get loud or inconsistent, he just tucks inside of himself. It isn’t disobedience so much as self-defense. He could look well-trained, but his eyes are dead. You might want to think everything is fine but as time passes, and he gets more withdrawn. He might drop his head between his knees in submission; he might look like a push-button pleasure horse on the surface, but he gives you none of his heart. He doesn’t want to try. Maybe you’ll call him lazy and kick harder, but louder cues will just shut him down more. If you are honest, it feels more like coercion then partnership. (Don’t even dare consider spurs.)

Then it happens, just like the big bloody shoot-out at the end of a western movie. After he’s taken all he can, a stoic horse might explode with emotion. The rider says, “Everything was just fine but suddenly, for no good reason, my horse just started bucking.” Or worse, all the light in their eyes finally goes totally black and they just lose the will to live, looking years older than their age. (Not that it’s my business, but if this is your goal–a blindly obedient, soul-dead ride–then please, don’t have children.)

How to best partner with a stoic horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. Especially if he’s a draft breed. Assume he hates being under-estimated and talked down to just as much as you do. Breathe yourself quiet. Show him respect and don’t interrupt his thought process. Wait for him to volunteer. Listening will require better patience and effort; stoic horses aren’t as blunt as demonstrative horses. Rather than bullying him through work, let him be who he is and answer in his own way. Yes, he will answer eventually, but you don’t get to be the boss of that. Allowing that horse to volunteer is your single goal.

When he gets the answer right, or even partly right, reward him lavishly. Let him know that his input matters. He might act a bit like the shy kid who blushes when the teacher praises him in class. That’s how you can tell it’s working.

Now the tendency of your work together is starting to shift. Instead of being a robot, he might even offer something more than you ask for. Yay, and don’t you dare correct him for trying too hard. See the big picture: He’s learning and shaping his behavior is much more important than demanding perfection.

Nurture this little sprig of confidence. Reward him with a big release. Like that same shy school kid, he doesn’t want to be hugged until he faints; instead slack the reins or the lead. Release! Let him stand on his own feet and feel pride in himself. Pause. Let his introverted bravado bask in the broad daylight. Then reward that; thank him for his honesty.

The day will come when the two of you will be together and you’ll show him a challenge. Just reveal it; nothing more. In your quiet mind, you’ll hear him say, “I got this.” You’ll feel him breathe; your legs expanding with his chest as his steps out.

Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.

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

What To Do When Your Horse Is Wrong

WMIntoSunsetIt started small. It started the way it usually starts; the rider pulled on her horse’s face. It’s a fundamental disagreement: the rider thinks it’s her right to control the horse and the horse doesn’t like having metal jammed on his jaw bone. They weren’t even on the same subject.

So, the gelding got fussy. The rider kicked and steered, trying to make him go. But the horse heard more whoa than go; all the steering happened by pulling the rein back, not that is was ever the rider’s intention to give the horse conflicting cues. There was head-tossing and mouth-gaping. It started small.

The next part is tough. Maybe it’s because we’re predators or maybe it’s our ego about having our way, or maybe we’ve been taught that we must show them who’s boss in some Neanderthal version of dominance, but it’s as if the rider has blinders on, unable to see (hear) her horse. The horse notices it immediately. It takes the rider longer, of course. It isn’t that the rider is mean or belligerent; she just believes she’s right.

It’s just about now that things can start to speed up. It’s like we have a snowball theory of disaster that says if the horse hesitates a second, or gives just one thought of resistance, then all is lost. That one small action will necessarily gain speed and size, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and so we panic and accelerate. Which, by the way, works like a cue for the horse, too. Now things are coming apart quickly.

“If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that’s just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong.” -Ray Hunt

Yes, it’s a quote by a western trainer, Ray Hunt. Lots of classical dressage trainers say the exact same thing, but not with the same blunt honesty.

So right now, I’m hoping that the rider is frustrated. And if the rider pauses before throwing a temper tantrum, she might actually feel that frustration and anxiety, and take it as a cue to herself, to go slow. Hooray! It’s a huge win to recognize an internal feeling and stop the snowball race long enough to become self-aware.

And in that tiny pause that feels almost like surrender to the rider, the horse can take that cue, too, and things begin to decompress immediately. It seems like an accident at first, almost a kind of butt-fall into better leadership, but it counts. Your horse just confirmed it and rewarded you for better behavior. You have to wonder who’s training who? But if you’re smart, you accept the invitation to partnership and start the ride again.

First, let a moment or two pass. It’ll feel like forever, but you are teaching yourself patience. When you label it that way, it should feel slow. Learn to enjoy it.

Now the game begins. It’s that game that we all played as kids; we called it Hot and Cold. As we searched for something hidden, others let us know we were getting warmer and cooler.

It’s a good comparison because training should feel a bit like the two of you feeling your way in a dark room. You are directing your horse toward something he doesn’t have a word for. And if the only answer you accept is perfection, then it’s you that’s failed. Instead, you are negotiating a better answer each time, by rewarding him as he gets warmer. The dog training term for that is shaping a behavior, step by step. Or if you’re a behavioral scientist, you call it successive approximation, meaning an approximate answer on the way to the right answer.

Regardless of what you call it, it means that you have evolved away from being someone focused on failure who makes serial corrections; nagging the horse about what he’s done wrong, again and again, making each ride a punishment. Now training becomes more like a game of cooperative hide-and-seek, with habitual rewards for the efforts your horse puts into the work. The more he offers, the happier everyone is. Now it’s as if you nag him about being a smart horse.

Here’s where creativity matters the most. Knowing that your horse is never wrong, it’s the rider’s challenge to ask a better question, then accept and reward that answer, and continue patiently and cheerfully, until the best habit is consistent. Training is nothing more than the “serious work” of playing a game of collecting and rewarding good experience for your horse.

A moment for the cynics in every discipline that will say that positive training is fine for trail horses or amateur horses, but if they’re asking for really hard advanced work, then pushing the horse hard is justified, whether it’s reining or dressage or jumping. Shame on them for selling their horses short, and for thinking so little of their own skills.

So, there you are in the middle of your ride. Take a breath and remember the best ride you ever saw. It doesn’t matter what riding discipline, but the horse’s ears weren’t pinned and his tail wasn’t clamped. He lifted his feet and his body looked strong and soft at the same time. It was freedom and partnership and trust, and most of all, you could tell it was art because it lifted your heart.

Then, whether you are a beginning trail rider or an ambitious competitor, ask your horse if he wants to play a game. Start where your horse is at right now. Ask for just a stride of walk, and reward him generously. Let it be enough, as you set about helping your horse be totally right.

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

Photo Challenge: Shadow

wm-shadow-blurred

I mean to blur the edge,
a half-stop between dark and light,
of the distance between us.

He’s walked on from this place
but just over my shoulder,
his shadow warms the ground.

Afterglow.

….

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

Shadow

Email Subject Line: “Do I Want a Horse?”

wm-winter-night-feed

February 2nd, 10 pm, 12 degrees. There was dense fog all day. We didn’t see the sun and the temperature stayed in the teens. My barn is full now, with three fosters visiting, on top of the usual herd of boarded horses and my family horses.

It’s time for the night feeding; double socks in my muck boots, sweats over my pajama bottoms, coat zipped to the very top, and two layers of hats and gloves. The dogs come with me as I carry two buckets of warm mush. One is for the elderly toothless donkey who can’t stay warm by chewing hay all night like the others. There’s some of her supper frozen in her feed-pan; she’s a slow eater. The other bucket is for two of the fosters who could use just a bit extra on such a bitter night. Everyone else gets extra hay, a flake of alfalfa, and a visual once-over.

I’ve fallen hard enough on icy ground that I’ve had to catch my breath and then crawl to a safe place to stand again; I swear, icy nights are more dangerous than horses. So, it’s small steps, testing my boot cleats as I go around the barn to throw hay in the back pen. I want to put eyes on everyone, but now my headlamp is flickering. A bit of whacking and head-shaking works and when I’m finally satisfied everyone is okay, I head back to the house and un-peel. My boots and coat are off when I remember the water. There’s one tank that I should have topped off. The layers come back on and I waddle out the back door again, with fewer dogs this time.

My barn hydrant has been frozen all week, so I’ve rolled out hose from the far side of the house. I can’t stand the thought of hose-wrangling on this night, when the frost is as thick as snow, so I walk a pair of five-gallon buckets instead.

Here’s why you should particularly not feel sorry for me. Right about now, I set the buckets down, pull my phone out, and take my gloves off. It’s so beautiful that, even in the dark, I take a few shots. It all looks night-vision green in my view finder and my eyes are too cold to focus. Then as I deliver the water, Edgar Rice Burro exhales a staccato series of heavy breaths, his precursor to braying, and I give him an extra scratch before going in for the night.

Thursday is blog night, these last seven years, so the dogs and I go to my studio to start writing. If there’s anything less romantic than below-freezing trips to the barn, it’s pounding out a blog past bed-time. Feel no sympathy for me; I’m hooked.

I’ve been thinking about an email I received from a stranger. The subject line asked, “Do I Want a Horse?” What a silly question, of course, you do.

The email was from a woman of a certain age, who has taken riding lessons every week for a couple of years but dreams of having horses at her home. Her husband and family think she shouldn’t; she thinks I might be impartial since I don’t know her. Really? I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. Even now, I’m haunted every day by the desire to have a horse.

It was a serious question and I gave her a serious answer. Keeping a horse at home is ugly work, not just for the weather. It’s constant fence repair and mucking and less time to ride than you imagine. I reeled off the numbers; cost of care, feed, vets, farriers, and all the rest. But the money is the easiest part.

Horses are somehow both accident prone and dangerous. They get hurt or sick and it isn’t always obvious until it’s bad. It takes years to gain the required knowledge and methods to keep them well. Then, she’ll need two; it’s cruel to own one horse. And she’ll need a truck and trailer and a safe place to ride. Or if she hauls to ride or have lessons, the horse left home might have anxiety, so maybe three horses are a better number. It gets complicated fast.

The heartfelt wish to have a horse is the selfish and easy part. I tell her it isn’t so simple to just get rid of them if it doesn’t work out. I give her the commitment talk. And of course, she must include them in her will to avoid them landing in rescue or on a truck to Mexico, if they outlive her. Then I urge her to make a list of what she’d be willing to give up if push comes to shove.

Sometimes parents ask me about a horse for their kid (and none of us are much more mature than that) and I always say no, don’t do it. Instead, lease a horse at a barn. When we get it wrong, it’s the horse that suffers.

But if the kid (you) can’t eat, or sleep, and begs relentlessly for at least a year, then consider getting a horse. But only do this thing if you think you’ll die without one. Know that you will see ugly things that will haunt you forever and you’ll be terrified a good part of the time. It’s a lot to go through for the view of a horse outside your window. Then, take the leap, if you must.

I never candy-coat horse ownership, but what I don’t say (and what I really believe) is that there’s too much cheap talk about loving horses. I never think it’s about owning one. I think we need to own all of them–each one of us literally owning each one of them.

I wish it was all more absolute. Not just the conditional love of a personal horse, or loving a breed of horses, but accepting the old crippled ones, the babies that need care and training, and the ones destroyed by abuse and neglect. It’s about track horses and plow horses and horses past any kind of work. It’s volunteering at a local rescue or therapeutic program when you’re done at home. It’s taking in an elder in the name of a heart-horse you’ve lost. And when your barn is full, then get out the checkbook and spend whatever’s left there to support local riding programs and rescues. Show up and witness abuse cases in court; call your elected officials on horses’ behalf. Then hope to encourage others by your example.

Do I think you should you get a horse? No. You should get all of them.

20170202_210549-2

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

Energetic Tidiness in the Saddle.

WM BrisaEye

Some of us climb into the saddle and have all kinds of crazy dangerous things happen–right out of the blue. We didn’t do anything at all, and for no good reason, the horse came apart.

Some of us are almost okay in the saddle, carefully moving along until it happens; the horse jerks, we lose balance, and jerk back. It happens so quickly that we scare each other half to death.

Some of us think of our horses as therapists. When we’re cross or out of sorts, all we have to do is go to the barn, climb into the saddle, and in no time at all, we’re feeling better.

Finally, some of us, the very luckiest ones, have horses especially interested in teaching their riders some energetic tidiness.

Right about here, I’m going to stick up for horses. They don’t come apart “for no good reason”; they don’t have some sort of vendetta to hurt people. Short of a bee sting, or some other sharp pain, they give us a series of warnings that things aren’t right. About the time we notice them, we flinch and get defensive. It’s just common sense that losing confidence makes us insecure. So we ride with timidity or bravado and not all horses, especially those with confidence problems of their own, tolerate it well.

It’s an unpopular thought but just because some horses seem good at dissolving our negativity, is it fair to expect it of them? How does the therapist part of his job affect the other work he does?

In these examples, the rider’s mental awareness limits the horse’s behavior options. We all acknowledge that the most challenging horses are the ones who teach us the most, but can we articulate how they do it?

As a riding instructor, I think about it a lot: What does it take for a rider to improve? Sure, there’s always technique involved. Balance and communication in the saddle is crucial. On the mental side, it’s all about energetic balance. If a horse is nervous, do we get scared or become Zen masters. If the horse is dull, can we lift our energy a bit to aid them? The bottom line is we must admit the impact our mental state has on our horse at any time.

We all know that horses sense our fear but it’s more than that. They sense confusion, distraction, and all sorts of lesser emotions. They can even mistake anticipation for anxiety–just like us. That last situation happens while riding with other people and at shows.

If our thoughts and emotions are running like a rat-on-a-wheel we aren’t much of a leader. Again, just common sense. The difference between riders who continue to have the same tense ride year after year and those riders able to progress with their horses boils down to mind control.

No, there is no way you can exert mental control over your horse. No way to control the environment, either. The only thing that will ever be within our control are our own thoughts and emotions.

The first thing to know is that a good rider doesn’t just ignore her fears and concerns. Denial is how most of us got in the nervous hole with our horses in the first place.

It’s a positive action to choose your state of mind; to discipline your thoughts to stillness. Think of it like picking up your bedroom. Put your fear and drama away in your underwear drawer with your flimsy doubt. Close it. Check the floor for stray socks, expectations, over-wrought dreams, and thoughts about aging; those all belong in the hamper. You can do the laundry later. Might be time to get rid of that Megadeath poster…

Now straighten your shoulders as if they’re sheets on your bed. Smooth yourself out. Then open the closet and take out a clean outfit of calm-listening. Accessorize with sparkling intention. Settle your intelligence and awareness inside a helmet and breathe. This is energetic tidiness. You’re ready to ride.

It’s hard in the beginning. Giving our horses on our best parts takes focus. Use kindness to spur yourself to understanding. When a bit of doubt crops up, kick it under the bed, and take another breath. Let your horse see your peace. Even if it’s fragile right now, hold it to the light and let him reflect it back to you. It’s no different from learning to keep your heels down. Repetition builds habit.

Being committed to listening in your inner stillness is wildly attractive to a horse. Horses recognize it because it’s how they are, too. There is strength in vulnerability.

When I look back to my own furious efforts to improve, I’m sure I drove my horses nuts. I wonder at their tolerance. Trying too hard, even to improve, looks exactly like anxiety and pressure. Luckily, horses read the quality of our intentions as clearly as our fear. It’s here that positive change begins.

Soon enough the rider begins to find a tidy and still place inside her horse, too. It’s the place we always dreamed of, that we obliterated searching for, and now we find it, in plain sight. It was that rat-on-a-wheel self-criticism that made it harder than need be.

Eventually a day comes when your energy becomes an aid to your horse. You can share your energy if his is lagging. You can comfort his pain with breath instead of worrying him with baby-talk. You can lift him with compassionate strength in a way that you didn’t always know you could.

I’m not saying that horses or people will ever be perfect. Every relationship is a negotiation: some days they carry us and some days we carry them. If your overall tendency is fine with you, then be grateful. If you think there’s room for improvement, then commit to change your mind about horses.

Know that riding starts deep inside of you. It’s always you; the leader is the one who goes first and shows the way.

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

Release: The Unflattering Truth

wmnamaste

A few weeks ago, I was standing, talking with a client at the end of her lesson. She was at her horse’s shoulder, close enough that her sleeve touched him, and he had his head curved toward her. He wasn’t mugging her; just standing. My client said, “I suppose you don’t think I should let him be this close, do you?”

It’s a well-known fact that all riding instructors live for the sole reason of ruining any good moment a rider might be having. And it’s a common event that we talk about horses when they are standing right there, so the answer was clear. “Let’s ask your horse.”

I was about six feet away and I asked my client to step back as well, out of his space, and let the lead rope rest on the ground. That last detail is important. If we hold the rope, even loosely, the rope moves as our bodies do, but if it’s resting on the ground, it’s a clear, undeniable message. It’s the difference between waiting on hold and hanging up the phone.

My client and I continued talking about the lesson and a minute–just a minute–later, he dropped his head low. He exhaled a long slow breath and loosened his jaw. His body got softer and quieter. His eyes closed part way. Neither of us had seen stress in him before but he was clearly and obviously more relaxed. This good gelding is a stoic sort of horse; sometimes you learn more in hindsight than in the moment.

For today, I’ll define release as ending the conversation (whatever training or work you were doing) and letting the horse be. The physical part of that is easy. In my example, my client had dismounted, taken off his bridle, and put his halter on, all the while standing within a few inches of him.

The mental release is a good deal more complicated for us humans because it involves ego and desire and horse-crazy girl fantasies. In other words, it involves putting the horse first. We all like to say we put our horses first.

And we want to give a reward. There’s no doubt that a horse responds to a kind word, a warm touch, or even a physical treat. Humans like that interchange, too. We revel in that moment of connection and gratitude. I don’t want to negate that in any way, but this sweet gelding told the truth. He was still, at the very least, wary of us. And if taking a step farther away would release that feeling, why wouldn’t we do it?

The easy answer is that it isn’t flattering to us humans. I remember the first time I heard that the best reward for a horse was release. No, it couldn’t be true. I confess joy in mugging a horse, but even more than that I just hated the thought that my horse didn’t appreciate my cloying affection. Like a first boyfriend, I wanted my horse to hang on my every word and want to cuddle and coo. And for the horse, just like a first boyfriend, he’d rather have the relationship than talk about it. Ouch. Just ouch.

In order to progress in an equine partnership, it’s important to learn to truly release a horse, both on the ground and in the saddle. If it’s possible to cue a horse to have anxiety, (who hasn’t done that?) then it must also be possible to cue a horse to relax.

A horse who mugs a human isn’t being affectionate. When he searches your pockets for treats isn’t cute; it’s a moment of anxiety.  It’s the insecure kind of behavior a weanling might do in a herd, but not a confident adult.

Gaining the confidence to hold his own self up may not not be easy at first. If his lacks confidence, you might have to shake your lead a bit, almost like asking him to back, before letting the rope hit the ground. But if you ask him to step back, then you do the same. It might take more then one try and he’ll need time to understand. Help him find that distance easier. Say good boy. Rest. Then watch his honest release response.

The ability to cleanly release him from your mental expectations, no matter if you are fearful or bold, might be the highest sort of leadership, but we have to get our emotions out of the way to do it. Engendering an experience of safety and consistency is the basis of a bond with a horse. It’s the comradery of standing together, confident, with no need to prove anything on either side. The other word for that is respect.

Back in my martial arts days, we were taught that a human had a personal space that was about three feet in all directions and it was considered an aggression to enter that space uninvited. I was an introvert and sometimes confused with social parameters. I appreciated that this three-foot rule gave me a kind of line of demarcation; I could choose to hug someone, or if I felt uncomfortable, I could step back, and use any number of the same calming signals I saw horses exhibit. Acknowledging that we are similar animals to horses, it was easier to understand the confidence he could feel from an honest release.

Yes, the exact word is confidence. Isn’t that the elusive goal?

So try this experiment: Give your horse a complete and honest release. Start by standing a few feet farther away than you want to. Still your body, drop your weight, soften your shoulders, and cock a hip. The soundtrack for this is Sting’s Set Them Free.

This last part takes discipline. Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Finally and most importantly, let go– free as a bird—release any expectation and judgment of him that you’re holding in your mind. When you have done it for him, then do it for yourself as well. Be the kind of leader he needs.

Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Be partners in peace.

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

Safety and Being a Spoil Sport.

wm-nube-doorI’m a riding instructor. Wait, it’s worse than that. A riding instructor who has read the small print of her liability insurance, as if I didn’t feel responsible enough before. Beyond that, I’m certain that if one of my horses hurt someone, it wouldn’t be his fault and it would break my heart. Maybe literally.

My barn isn’t safe for kids. Wait, it’s worse than that. My barn isn’t safe for adults, whether they are city slickers or old hands. Come to think of it, it’s never been safe for the horses. I don’t mean to sound judgmental but I don’t think your barn is safe either.

A while back, the director of a riding program invited me to give a talk on safety to a group of good men who volunteered to help with handyman work on their farm. The director didn’t feel the men were taking her requests seriously. Among other things, they were bringing the horses in using an ATV and moving them at a breakneck speed. When the director asked them to slow down, they all looked at her like she was a whiny spoil sport.

I gave a strong presentation. I used examples and spoke intelligently from experience. Rules exist for reasons and I actually know those reasons. I made eye contact and sprinkled my talk with humor. They looked at me, the ones who stayed awake, like I was a whiny spoil sport. I get it.

Why is being around horses so complicated and tiresome? It’s the same look I get when I recommend that every rider wear a helmet, every ride. The look I get when I ask if a rider’s horse might have ulcers or if they’ve had a saddle fit recently. They tell me it’s just a horse, after all. I get it.

These things are inconvenient when we have time constraints and it all costs money that would be better spent on a vacation. Then, it’s my fault for being difficult when all they want to do is just ride. Oh, I really do get that.

It’s time for the annual reminder that horses are not dirt bikes. Or more poetically:

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” ―Alice Walker

Horses are creatures of intelligence, great sensitivity, and instinct that has insured their very survival for centuries. Horses have physical requirements as complicated as any other wild animal, but are social and generally kind to humans. It makes horses can make appear more docile than they actually are–kind of like big stuffed toys.

Things come apart when a horse has a normal equine response that frightens or injures us humans. Then horses pay the price for our complacency, when it’s our responsibility to keep ourselves safe, and in that way, insure their safety and security, as well. Yes, I just said if we get hurt, it’s our fault.

I want you safe because I’ve been around long enough to know too many sad stories. I want you around to care for your horse into his old age, and maybe a couple of horses past that. I want you safe because our bodies are frail and standing around with that deer in headlights reality with a frightened thousand-pound horse will always be a losing proposition, even if you have to admit it in hindsight. And most of all, because there will never be a guaranteed kid-safe horse, or flawlessly secure barn, or totally predictable outcome.

And because sadly, we humans need to feel safe and sometimes we over-compensate, using bravado as a kind of false courage. Horses aren’t fooled.

It isn’t that we mean harm; we all love our horses. We like to show off or we fall into habits of taking shortcuts. We get distracted and lose sight of the big picture. Complacency is like gravity; it settles on us and makes us dumb to our surroundings, dulling our senses, and that’s when most injuries happen.

I understand how cool it is to stand next to a draft horse and call him Baby. Sometimes it can seem like throwing a leg around a saddle horn, laying on a horse bareback, or encouraging a horse come close and mug you, makes it look like you’re a horse whisperer in tune with the equine heart. I have to tell you–it’s the exact opposite.

Call me a whiny spoil sport. It’s my professional responsibility to look at a situation, imagine every horrible, crippling possibility for the horse and rider, while holding a light, positive thought for the best. But really, isn’t it just good horsemanship? Too many horses go to rescue or worse because we don’t hold up our end.

So a New Year reminder to stay focused and listen to your horse. If you don’t do groundwork, it’s time to start and if you do, freshen your focus. Know that he wants safe leadership most of all. Begin when you halter him, speak his language. Use your peripheral vision–your horse eyes–and be aware of your surroundings. Encourage good manners and reward him lavishly for every effort. Horsemanship boils down to what we give our horses, even more than what they give us.

Some of us are rule breakers by nature. We don’t like to do was we’re told. I’m at the head of that line myself. And some rules are meant to break. Common sense will tell you that when it comes to white breeches. But too many people are more concerned with the respect a horse shows them, than the respect they show the horse.

Perhaps consider rules as a way of demonstrating love for horses; a constant awareness of their dignity and a method for showing them respect for who they are and how they think.

And then we see them galloping with ears sharp, tails flagged, and hooves churning up the soil: Strength and sensitivity. Intelligence and timeless beauty. Even the most cynical people pause and stand a bit taller, just existing in the same world with horses.

In that light, treating horses like a fuzzy teddy bear seems outlandishly demeaning, doesn’t it?

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