Trust: A Suspension of Disbelief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe trust is another word for patience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circles: A Soft Bend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside leg to outside rein. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a better reason?

….

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

The Middle Path: Why Gaits Matter

Let’s say you like to jump and so does your Arabian. Let’s say you do endurance on an Appaloosa. Let’s say you have an expensive, impeccably bred performance horse and you actually use him for the very thing he was bred to do. Or let’s say you trail ride your rescue horse. It’s all the same.

So, let’s say you have a horse who you love. He’s kind and tries hard. And you always want to do your best. A foundation of dressage would be a real blessing.

Relax. I’m not suggesting that you crank a noseband and then pull on his face; you won’t find that written in dressage literature anywhere, even in the small print. You don’t have to wear ridiculous white breeches but a helmet would be nice. Just asking that you look past the worst manifestations (after complaining to the ruling boards at least as much as your friends on Facebook) and consider the training fundamentals as a way to help your horse and support his longevity.

Your horse’s gaits matter. When I was a fresh baby dressage queen, I hated hearing that. I didn’t have spectacularly athletic horses. I didn’t want to talk about gaits because watching my horses run at liberty in the pasture, I knew they were not impossibly beautiful to anyone but me. I knew how world-class horses moved and mine, well, humble versions at best.

It was obvious to me that I loved the horses I had. I knew we were never going to be in the Olympics but being reminded of our less-than-elite movement made me sulky and defensive. I was missing the point of considering my horse’s gaits.

Let’s all start at the exact same place. Horses are born with gaits. They are wobbly at first. Sometimes they go more upward than forward, sometimes they fall on their faces. In a few days, they find a rhythm moving next to their mothers and not long after that, they have the joy of running circles around their mothers.

In the perfect world, young horses play in pastures until they are four years old or longer, with short stints of learning ground manners and trailer loading before they are started under saddle. They have uneven growth spurts, developing muscles, and search to find balance in their own bodies. Horses live in the moment; they feel the world as it relates to their bodies, so this foundation of balance is very important to their confidence. (Here is where riders committed to their “ordinary” horses should start to think about gaits.)

Hard news: Horses were never designed to be ridden. Humans asked them to be beasts of burden, and most agree to do it. Horses are social animals; perhaps they are drawn/adapt positively to relationship. At some point, we begin to take the question of their balance for granted but the horse never does. That shows visibly in their gaits.

This is all further complicated by breed, age, and riding disciplines designed by humans. So yes, draft horses can gallop quickly but still couldn’t win the Kentucky Derby. Piaffe and passage are advanced dressage movements but any horse can do an untrained, un-cued, and stressed out version of these movements when they get excited; we call it jigging.

So, what is good movement for a horse? Making a study of biomechanics is a good start. As usual, there is no shortage of opinion and science, and then even more opinion. After that our own eyes trick us, people seem to define words differently, and then make things up to suit themselves anyway.

Riding behind the vertical is wrong according to rules and science, but it’s common and horses suffer for it. Other riders ride with long reins, thinking it’s kind but end up over-correcting and causing more balance trouble than they know.

Start here: All horses should be relaxed and forward in their gaits. Most importantly, neither of those may be lost or substituted for the other. They must be balanced with each other.

Horses should be covering ground freely, with an energetic impulsion and supple fluidity. The physical reason is balance. It’s your horse’s comfortable place and going too slow is challenging. Think wobbly bicycle. Think walking on a tightrope. We need to consider the emotional result as well. A horse lacking forward movement falls into a loss of confidence or enough mental confusion to make movement lose rhythm and balance.

Equally important is relaxation. It’s a peaceful mind, free of the crippling effects of resistance and tension. Physically, the most obvious sign is always a horse’s poll. There is a natural movement in the head that is the result of the spine’s movement at any gait and if that joint is hindered or stopped, there is tension in his body. Think of wearing a neck brace. Think of running forward with lockjaw. The emotional result of tension is fear and doubt. Again, a loss of confidence.

Some horses rebel and act out as a release of tension and even sadder, some shut down and fall into despair. Yes, some horses get depressed. Your horse’s gaits matter because his movement defines his balance and his physical expression is akin to his mental health. His mind cannot be separated from his body; it’s only humans that do that.

Here we are again, naming what’s wrong. It’s the easiest thing in the world to complain and name-call. If you want to know about your horse’s real gait– the movement you must aspire to in the saddle– watch him at play in the pasture. That is the true definition of liberty. It isn’t forced unnatural movement, delivered with tense, pinned ears. Liberty is not cued with whips.

Pasture gaits include long strides at the walk, with push and swing and rhythmic stride. Think old school Saturday Night Fever. Then it’s a trot that’s effortless and light and fluid. Think of the glide of perpetual motion, think bird on the wing. Most enlightening, it’s a canter that’s all power and snap and lift. It’s more air than dirt. Think freedom. Think true liberty.

The challenge of riding should always be to allow natural movement in a horse. We should never interfere or be an encumbrance to their gaits. The more balanced and rhythmic a horse’s gaits are, the happier he is mentally and emotionally. It’s our job to figure out how to ride that way.

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

Photo (Poem) Challenge: Rounded

The whorl beneath a forelock. The 
velvet comma nostrils. The curve 
of a neck, the serpentine of a 
spine. That soft S-shaped swing 
of a tail, as hooves stride on by.

The greeting from an intelligence 
that encompasses its entire equine 
body. The arc of a friendship. The 
swell of affection. The initiation 
of a spiral that begins as a light

caressing curve and ever so gradually 
comes around in loops smaller and 
ever smaller, binding tighter and 
deeper, until there is just one life. 
A life that circumscribes the Infinite.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
Check out our clinic schedule. 2018 is filling quickly; if you would like to host a clinic or attend one, please contact me here.
(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. And then I write a poem. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Rounded

Riding the Middle: My Horse is Lazy.

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

Warning: Predictable answer ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kick less, dance more.

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

 

 

Too Much Love: Is it Partnership?

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

By reader request:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Escape the Death Spiral: Asking For a Step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It began with a word so small and unspoken 
that it waited in a bitter slick at the back 
of your tongue, held in check, afraid to trespass 
the air. The rest of the words trickled down the 
back of your throat, left dangling with other threads

of hard yearning and cold disappointment, caught 
suspended between fear and lust for a scream. Soon 
even a whisper is too much. So little air can pass 
that a sigh turns to a gasp, a strangle self-inflicted 
but denied until it bloats the body, stifling light 

and intention. So bound by muzzles of our own making, 
blue tints to our lips and the water in our eyes floods
over the parched skin covering dehydrated bones. We are 
not dead, just feigning life. Suffering will never nourish 
your blood. A feast of tears and angst is a hollow meal.
 
Let your ragged gasp bray out, hack and spit those
stale words to the earth to be cleaned. Suffering is
not a sacrament to be lifted up for worship. Avert your
eyes instead to the blunt beauty of clouds galloping 
shadows over the mesa, warming crevices with new growth.

 

….

 

 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

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(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Layered

Helmets: When Complacency and Experience are Killers.

“She had a helmet on and she still got hurt,” the woman said. Well, sure. I take vitamins and I’m still getting older.

If this is logic, then I’m missing the point. I write about the importance of helmets every year; this is the eighth since Courtney King-Dye’s accident and the founding of riders4helmets. Lots of us wore helmets full-time long before that.

To be clear, I wasn’t born in a helmet. When I was a kid, we didn’t have tack, much less helmets. But I’m capable of change. Apparently, that’s a bigger deal than I think; the common reason I hear for not using a helmet is that they never wore them in the past. I didn’t use a cell phone back then either. I changed.

When I’m able to talk helmets with that helmet-resistant rider quietly, they usually give the same reason. With a self-effacing smile, they admit the reason is probably ego. An uncomfortable silence follows. Sometimes I stare, wondering if ego is usually the thing that gets in the way of us caring about our loved ones.

In earlier posts, I’ve ranted about freak accidents and logic. That’s silly, of course. All the statistics are undeniable. Everyone knows everything. Maybe I should be happy that kids think of helmets as part of their riding/superhero costume and just bite my tongue.

I can’t because I’m a horse advocate. I disagree with riders who think what’s on the outside of their head is more important than protecting what’s inside; their intellect, personality, and most important to their horse, the ability to buy hay. What does it mean to have concern for horse slaughter or the plight of the mustangs but take your own life for granted? Why not do all you can to be there for your horse (if not your loved ones)?

I can hear their defiant anti-helmet proclamation. Well, I’m not afraid to die on horseback either. What I’m afraid of is NOT dying. I couldn’t bear living without horses.

International Helmet Awareness Day 2017 (Sept 16th and 17th) is your chance to purchase a new helmet at a special two-day only discount from one of hundreds of participating retailers in 16 countries. Visit http://bit.ly/2xM4EYJ to locate a retailer near you #IHAD #riders4helmets

The new statistic that caught my eye this year is a study conducted by a team of Alberta researchers found that riders who reported an injury had an average of 27 years of riding experience. New riders had a relatively small incidence of injury.

It rings true for me. In my extended circle of riders, there were several injuries this past year. Some were quite serious. Some took place on the ground or at the mounting block. All the injured were experienced horse people with many years in the saddle. The beginners were just fine.

So I speculate. I see a lot of complacency in the horse world. It’s a luxury I can’t afford as a pro. I must keep my focus at all times; I need to see the world with an equine range of vision. Training horses and riders requires awareness. I’m always surprised at the number of times I witness riders unaware of obviously dangerous situations.  I’d call it a passive disrespect of their horses. Sometimes they don’t know better, even after a life with horses. Sometimes it’s laziness. And sometimes we just get bull-headed as we age, set in our ways and unwilling to grow or learn. I suppose there is a certain cosmic balance to getting a head injury from not using your head.

For me, I’m trained to see patterns in horse behaviors and human behaviors. When I see a rider defend their ego, or even just close their minds toward helmets, safety, and common knowledge, how does that reflect on their training methods? How does it reflect on their horses?

I understand how difficult it is to change. Looking back, horses have asked me to change everything about myself. I resisted; it was hard and once you start, the learning never ends. But I still see horses through the eyes of that little horse-crazy girl. The rest of me has changed as horses have asked me to. Like most of us who have applied ourselves, I’m a better person for their equine input. It took another species to teach me humanity. If nothing else, I want to be around to enjoy that, sound in mind, for as long as I can.


I’ll finish this post with the usual list of important information, in hopes that it might make a difference to the people who can make a difference…

Stats and sources:

  • Equestrians are 20x more likely to sustain an injury than a motorcycle rider, per hour.
  • 60 number of deaths/year due to head injury (compared with 8 for Football)
  • 60% of riding fatalities occur from head injuries.
  • 15,000 number of ER admissions for equine-related head injuries in 2009.
  • 2 feet number of feet at which head injury can occur.

45% of TBI (traumatic brain injuries) are horse related. Riding is considered more dangerous than motorcycling or downhill skiing. Approximately 20% of accidents which result in head injury happen while the person is on the ground. They are just as common in professionals as amateurs.

If you have a hard impact blow while wearing your hat, immediately replace it with a new hat. There may be damage to the hat that is not visible to the naked eye.Hat manufacturers generally recommend replacing your hat every four to five years. There is a sale on now.

There is no statistical correlation between skill level and injury likelihood. Professional riders are just as at risk to sustain injury due to a fall as less frequent riders. Head injuries are cumulative. An original head injury can be made much worse by additional concussions. Your injury risk depends on the height from which fall, as well as the speed at which you’re traveling. Even a fall from a standing horse can be catastrophic.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist: Horse Version

You know how the cat magically goes to the person with the allergy? Or she goes the person who happens to agree with Preacher Man, the Corgi, who believes that all cats are agents of the devil? Meanwhile, the person who loves cats is cooing and coaxing with raw fish but the cheeky cat hoists her tail a bit higher and gives us that view as she saunters her way out of the room. Cats think people try too hard. They’re suckers for the one who plays hard to get. Corgis are doomed.

How to catch a cat: Just don’t. Don’t look, don’t talk, and absolutely don’t let the thought cross your mind that you’d like to scratch those ears. Then relax and let the cat sneak up on you from behind. Cats can’t resist mystery.

Now pretend that a horse is as smart and curious and playful as a cat. And you want to think you are at least as clever as a corgi. This part is much more complicated because we’re only human.

Sometimes we let our minds get a little soft. We are prone to thinking we’re not predators or prey; instead we act like intellectuals, spending time in our minds and mistaking that for the natural world where cats and horses live. In other words, we’re boring.

We debate training technique but then work by rote, busy with opinion and not being fully present with the horse. We unconsciously halter the same way every time. We lead them like they are bricks on the end of a rope.

What if we thought of ourselves as artists? We agree that riding is an art, but do we hesitate to call ourselves artists? That’s silly; it takes an amazing amount of creativity to get out of the house in the morning.

We are a creative species but we get lazy and use our intellect to doubt ourselves. We let ourselves be ordinary when all we need is a bit of conscious energy. Energy that we can dial up or down like a thermostat on an oven.

Creativity isn’t a mystery, it’s a habit like brushing your teeth. Or cooking with spices. Or loving someone. Creativity is the cherry on top; it’s the extra dollop of energy that adds zing to life. It’s a skill –like horsemanship, only with a smile on your face.

When I meet a horse, I start with a simple question like can you please take a step back? I ask him with the method I least expect the horse to know. I ask politely and he thinks about it.

His owner wants him to succeed, so she interrupts and tells me how she cues him to back. To be clear, all three of us know he can back. And I could care less if he backs, I am establishing a conversation.

If a horse has just one cue, how do we know he isn’t answering by rote, too? Unconscious action might be the first thing we teach horses. I want a fresh response, so I want to engage him. I want to be interesting and mysterious. That’s how he’ll know who I am.

The two things I know more than anything else about horses is that they like consistency. They are like us that way, they like dinner on time and the comfort of knowing they are safe in their home.

And second, horses get bored easily. Just like us. Are you both so used to acting by rote than you think it’s normal? Is your horse unresponsive? Would your horse say that you are?

So, I give the horse a minute to up his game. Anyone can back, I want him to be curious about me. Not because I have a stick or a loud voice but because I listen to him. If he looks like he’s thinking, then I reward him profusely and it’s game on. But if he looks like he isn’t thinking, I’m not fooled. Horses are as smart as cats; I reward him, too. Because energy should always be rewarded.

Here’s the secret: Disarm him with unpredictable release.

Be brand new; fluid in your movements, soft in your eye, agile on your feet. Step out of his space. Unpredictable release.

Go in his pen and actively don’t catch him.  Hold the halter in your hand and studiously do not try. Unpredictable release.

Go to the mounting block and don’t mount. Scratch his withers and go untack him. Unpredictable release.

Work at liberty but trust him. Ride bareback and massage his ribs with your knees. Ride with a neck ring that you are patient with… patience is creativity, too.

Instead of warming up with too much contact too soon, along with too much distraction and worry, warm up with too much music and fluidity. Unpredictable release.

Being mentally active means the rider is using less physical strength but keeping her energy up. He mimics you. If he isn’t forward, well, wake your-own-self up, change the length of his stride, longer or shorter using just your sit-bones. Think with your seat and legs. Still your voice and breathe. Crank up the music.

Long walk in a soft leg yield, barely asking his withers to the outside. Think inside leg to outside rein while moving in serpentines. Continue reversing direction until neither of you can remember having a stiff side.

Sometimes ask for tiny things and sometimes big. It isn’t that you don’t train the hard challenges; it’s that your train them as if they’re fun.

Then ask again, and be ready for a different answer. You don’t know what he’ll do and that’s the best part. It’s the call to energy and creativity. Unpredictable release.

I want to be the most interesting thing in the world to my horse. I want our conversation so scintillating that he hangs on my every word, and by that I mean, that I don’t cue by rote. I keep my energy percolating.

I want to have the consistency that makes him feel safe and yet still be mysterious and interesting enough to hold his attention. I want him focused on me and I’ll train that by focusing on him. I want him to think it’s more fun working with me that staring at plastic bags flapping in the wind.

Ride like a cat. Listen, bat some ideas around, then mentally pounce on one and chase it down so you can play with it. Now reward your own creativity for making work feel like play.

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