Photo Challenge: Unusual

It's not unusual to feel still
air rush over your cheeks and 
past your ears. It's you moving 
forward in a bold waltz rhythm 
that's less domesticated than dance.

It's perfectly normal to release
the earth and be held by intention
and hoof beats and a lesser degree 
of gravity than what roots docile 
human feet to mud and granite.

It's the ordinary excellence of a 
woman and a horse. Ribs expand as hips
surrender to the rolling impulsion,
closing your eyes just long enough to
feel the power in letting go. Canter out.
for L.
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.)

Unusual

 

Part One: My Horse Betrayed Me.

 

I hear lots of horror stories in my line of work. “My horse just started bucking, for no good reason.” “He was flying like a kite on the end of my lead rope.” “One minute he was walking next to me and the next, I had smashed toes, my head knocked sideways, and he was running away.”

In that instant, your horse goes from being your soulmate to guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Slightly less paranoid riders would call his behavior a psychotic break. He became unpredictable. Uncontrollable. Is the term betrayal overly dramatic? He broke your trust.

Lucky for you there are some rail-birds ready to dispense training advice. Put a chain over his nose. Run him in the round pen until he gives in. Get a whip and show him who’s boss.

Whoa! Slow down. Can we rewind? Tell the lynch mob that you’ve got this. Because if the only response is hindsight punishment, riders are doomed. Here’s a radical thought: How about listening to him in the first place?

Disclaimer: There is the very rare occasion when a pain response forces a horse to explode without warning. Think bee sting. If there is an extreme response, look first at his physical condition.

In most cases, the horse runs away just one step at a time. He gives warnings repeatedly, as his anxiety grows. He holds it together as long as he can. If you’re listening, you have time. Learning to respond to calming signals from your horse can save both of you.

When I ask riders for the long version of what happened, the story unfolds differently. Maybe he was hard to catch that day, or impatient and a bit barn sour at the gate, or maybe especially girthy during saddling. She got complacent. Small details were ignored for expediency. Some of us are so busy in our own heads that we don’t even notice the small details. The rest of us were taught to plow on ahead no matter what because we can’t let the horse “win.”

Then his discomfort got confused with disobedience. Horses just have one way of communicating and it’s with their body. If a generally well-behaved horse nips or tosses his head, don’t think you can “correct” his anxiety with escalation. When we get resistance from a horse, pause and breathe. Then resolve the anxiety while it is small and manageable. Let your horse see you as worthy of his trust.

The biggest reason to listen to your horse is because you have the awareness equivalency of a blind, deaf, hairless mouse. Horses are prey animals forever; their senses are so much more acute than a human’s that we literally have no idea what’s going on, even if we’re paying attention. Let that sink in.

On top of that, science says that a horse’s response time is seven times quicker than ours; the fastest response time of any common domestic animal. When things come apart, it happens fast. It makes sense because flight – the instinct to sprint away from perceived danger – is the species’ primary defensive behavior.

I italicized instinct for a reason; it’s the important part. Is it fair to ask for obedience above instinct? The short answer is yes, our safety depends on it, but it’s complicated.

Say we’re walking to the arena. From the horse’s side, they pull their head away and graze because it’s their instinct to always eat. Horses are designed for full-time grazing. So we react by jerking the lead-rope. Fighting instinct is a bit like fighting gravity but humans have a plan and a clock ticking, so we get adversarial.

A rider with a greater understanding of her horse’s instincts and needs might feed a flake of hay while tacking up and then actively lead her horse to the arena by keeping a good forward rhythm in her feet. He has food in his stomach and she gets to ride within her time constraints. Best of all, there is no fight before the ride even starts. You can tell it’s good leadership because everyone “wins.”

Most of all, no one betrays anyone. The best reason for a rider to study and understand horse behavior is that learning their logic can keep us from a runaway of our own – an emotional runaway.

Granted, it’s a little easier to be logical in a discussion over grazing rights than it is in the middle of a dangerous bucking incident, but we have to start small.

And it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that, when you look at it this way, horses and humans aren’t that temperamentally well-suited to each other. So it goes; I don’t see either species giving up on each other.

All of this is to say that when your horse appears to overreact to his surroundings, he isn’t wrong. And adding our over-reaction on top won’t make things better.

At the same time, it’s our nature to think we know everything and that our plan is the only thing that matters. It’s a good reminder, even if your horses live on your property with you, that you are only a small part of their experience. They have fully dimensional lives, with emotional ups and downs, that have nothing do to with you at all.

If you want an unthinking partner with limited intelligence, dirt bikes are a good option.  Otherwise, spend more time understanding and less time wishing horses were different. It takes more than a lifetime to understand horses. You don’t have any time to lose.

Yes, you could say that I’m making excuses for horses and, not as sympathetic as I should be toward humans who have been hurt and frightened. I just want to suggest that we be a bit more careful about the words we use to describe horse behaviors. We must learn to accept and support each other’s instincts for self-preservation because that’s how both species will flourish.

The words we choose matter, not because they give horses a bad name, but because they damage how we think of horses in our own hearts.

Next week I’ll talk about fear in Part Two: Now I’m afraid.

P.S. THANK YOU: This was a milestone week for my little blog. We passed one million views. It was a small thing in the course of world events but I noticed. I’m grateful, everyone, for the time you share here.

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

How many times did I ask
on a breath and a thought
that you consider the moment?
Consider joining me in an adventure
or a moment of solitude,
or a wisp of air.

Your thoughtful response; a
soft eye, maybe an interested ear.
And in another breath, the arc of your
glorious neck sharing an indelible
instant, season, lifetime. 
It was enough.
….
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.)

Collage

Common Sense about Horse Communication

The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours.

I’ve never trusted my own senses. I consider it a good thing.

While I was still in grade school, I broke my nose on a sheep. These things happen; he was a big cross-eyed ram by the name of Grandpa. So, I don’t have a good sense of smell, but no worries, if I imagine what it might smell like I get by. It should impact my taste but you can’t convince me that raspberries taste better to you.

I was born with flimsy eardrums and flunked all my hearing tests in school. Two childhood surgeries later, no improvement. My parents debated whether I wasn’t able to hear or just didn’t listen. I do in fact have a hearing loss. It’s the lower tone range, so it’s mainly men I don’t listen to. I mean hear.

My eyes are my strongest sense. I have a spectacular eye for detail. But even on my best day, if I hadn’t learned to triangulate llama noses, I’d never be warned about visitors on my farm.

It bears repeating: The first thing to remember about horses is that their senses are just better than ours. Every moment.

Horses have a better hearing range with greater frequency than humans. They use it as an early defense system and we usually decide they’re distracted.

Their sense of smell is not as good as a dog, but still much better than ours, as evidenced in the spring when they become besotted with of the smell of new grass. We can’t tell unless a lawnmower has been by.

Their sense of touch is extremely acute; they can feel a fly on their lower hind leg. Do you think we might over-cue?

And vision -the equine eye is the largest of any land mammal. And like most prey animals, their eyes are set on the sides of their head, allowing them close to a 350° range of vision. Horses also have both binocular and monocular vision, which means they can process two separate images at the same time. Go ahead, pause here to push your glasses up your nose.

Most of us think our horses are psychic because it’s easier to believe than the truth about our own limited senses.

Compared to prey animals, we’re not nearly as aware of our surroundings. We tend to be loud and dominating, especially with our hands. We act like we know everything.

Back in the day on Saturday Night Live, Garrett Morris translated the “News for the Hard of Hearing.” He’d stand at the side in a bad parody of an ASL translator, cup his hands to his mouth and yell. Just holler it out. It gave me a deliciously guilty, politically-incorrect laugh.

But that’s how we are next to horses. We stand and yell, our normal tone qualifies, slowly enunciating each syllable as if the horse is deaf or stupid, or sadly, a child. We repeat ourselves, we escalate our cues. It’s what we were taught to do but they “heard” us the first time. It’s pretty arrogant for a human to think a horse isn’t aware of things twice as obvious to them as they are to us.

As the theoretically superior animal, it’s up to humans to learn the horse’s language. This is where not trusting your senses comes in handy for a horse-woman. It makes it easier to want to listen if you aren’t sure what’s going on.

I use the word “conversation” when writing about communicating with horses… but I don’t mean verbal. It isn’t about constantly chattering along, explaining to the horse that his mane is being brushed, that you’re going to pick up his feet now, that the saddle is next. He knows.

And it isn’t just baby talk and explanations about grooming. We sit crooked and our legs flop. Sometimes we kick with each stride. We twist around in the saddle like kids on a school bus. We can’t look to the side without flinging our shoulders around. You’d think we didn’t have peripheral vision

We create such a racket to their senses, that horses stop listening, not being disobedient but just to quiet the roar. It’s a calming signal to us. The cue that we can do less.

Much of what we do with horses is for ourselves. We use them for comfort and that isn’t a bad thing… unless we never give back. Unless we always think that it’s all about us. If you are looking for a better relationship with horses then listen more. Strive to understand them more for who they are rather than who we want them to be.

I use the word “conversation” with a horse because of what it doesn’t mean: Lecture. Soliloquy. Pontification. Sermonize.

Instead, let the air rest. It’s easier to listen then. Be curious in silence.

Say what you mean and mean what you say. Let the rest go. It’s the opportunity your horse is waiting for. He might need a while to trust it but then he’ll tell you his side of things. It will make perfect sense.

Sometimes now as a clinician, I find myself speaking to a group while standing next to a horse. I’m talking as clearly and audibly as I can for the humans, even as I’m aware that I’m sounding like “News for the Hard of Hearing” to the horse.

They tolerate my noise because of another sense that I think horses have. It’s an awareness of intention. It’s the sentiment beyond silence.

I think it’s the best we can hope for from a horse; to find a bit of grace for our loud and rude ways. Perhaps he hopes that one day humans might learn to communicate.

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

 I was asked to write about lunging and I assume this means with no swear words. I don’t know why I said that; lunging is one of my very favorite activities. Oh, I remember now. Lunging is misunderstood, misused, and it can drive horses lame or crazy or shut down so far that their eyes look dead.

Like every other training aid in the horse world, it’s either a gift of communication and connection or a weapon of anxiety and domination. The very worst part? It’s a missed opportunity.

And like usual, no riding discipline is immune. It seems to start in the same place; lunging is used to run a horse into exhaustion. No matter the stress on joints and tendons, no matter the behavioral issue, just run ’em out of it. As if exhaustion ever trained anything positive.

The varied English disciplines go crazy with all kinds of gear meant to gimmick movement or head position or bend. Draw reins, side reins, pessoa… the list goes on. Trainers use them so they must be okay, right? When you research the purpose of these contraptions there’s a sales pitch that might almost sound like a miracle cure. As if saying it made it true. As if a forced position could be anything but cruel.

I’ve also seen a lunge line used with great lightness and finesse to help a horse find his balance and strength. I’ve asked untrained colts and gnarled rescue horses to transition through the gaits from my breath alone, and been given responses so quick that I doubted them. Longer strides and shorter, stretching, bending; anything that can be done in the saddle, can be done on the line. A soft request, delivered with patience and grace, can give a horse a fluid sense of confidence that is nothing short of glorious for both of you.

A few years back, a certified natural horsemanship trainer came here to evaluate a rescue horse. He was in my holding pen which happens to be round. The trainer landed like a helicopter, slapping a flag all over, and scaring the bejebbers out of both me and the horse. He panicked and ran, beginning a process that seemed to require tearing him down as step one.

It’s a common technique; it might get results with some horses. But I’ve also worked with horses who get hysterical when even asked to circle.  Not just nervous; full-blown hysteria. Training methods that involve physical intimidation aren’t dependable. Horses do not learn when they’re afraid, and we’re not that smart then either.

Too many of us have been taught some version of “tie them to the trailer, jam them on the bit, run them hard, and let them figure it out.” The idea is to let the horse “fight himself.” Even if it was a good idea, it’s a lost opportunity. At a time when we could be building trust by helping the horse, we abandon them to their situation. Then we get frustrated when horses don’t trust us.

Lunging a horse is an opportunity to connect, to partner and communicate in a supportive way. It’s an opportunity to play and work and feel strong, without the distraction of carrying weight. Lunging is a training aid. An aid, just to be painfully literal, is supposed to make it easier.

If I’m working with a young horse, or it’s a crisp day, or it’s been a while since the last ride, I might start with some free lunging. That’s a fancy term for letting the horse run at liberty in the arena. I like to cheer every explosion of bucking and farting. It’s a way that horses adjust their backs, literally getting the kinks out. When they run fast, I wave my arms encouraging them. When they begin to slow, I pretend to chase them and they pretend to be afraid. That flag of the tail and dip of the nose as he bolts past me is just him giving me a bit of a hoot in return.

If a liberty run isn’t possible, I’ll use a lunge line but encourage him to play when we start. It’ll be a bit more polite but bucking and head tossing is fine if he isn’t fighting the circle.

After he’s had some time to play, begin to ask for transitions. Be calm, give clean cues, and reward his response. Then ask for something else. Let transitions steady him with confidence and balance him with partnership. Let that lunge line tie the two of you in communication and understanding.

Here is the important thing about lunging: As much as it might warm a horse’s muscles, it’s meant to engage the mind even more. Use it as a time to warm up mentally, even more than physically, so that when you do mount, you and your horse are already working together.

Running in circles like a headless chicken is not the same thing at all. 

It’s easy to name call those who are ignorant or impatient. Those who don’t know better and those who are lazy or in a hurry. And particularly those who truly believe horses are fodder.

Some think that positive training is fine for trail horses but when the work gets harder, the rider has to get harder, regardless of disciplines. Even as positive trainers compete and win in all disciplines, the unstated feeling is that you must dominate the horse for any evolved performance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I don’t think the problem is with training aids at all. The problem is with us. We’re limited by our judgment and marginal awareness. In our weak hearts, we bully horses because we don’t believe horses have the capacity to choose to join us freely. We don’t believe we’re capable of inspiring the kind of work we want. We underestimate horse’s intellect and sense of humor. We think we have the only brains in existence.

Harsh training is a statement that denies the fundamental beauty, strength, and intelligence that horses embody from their first day. Worse than that, we become a flat mean caricature of our own potential, as if the only way to assimilate some of their magic is through domination. The first tenant of training horses should be that we aspire to their level.

Or maybe we have it backward. Maybe horses are the training aid meant to teach us something beyond aggression and belligerence. Something like self-respect and civility.


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

Teaching Your Horse to Relax

The rider said that her mare had an undeniable “rushiness” and was always tense. The mare is five years old and in their first months together, the mare has had good ground manners. She tied and picked up her feet but walking out of the barn, she was way ahead or the rider had to pull her. The mare didn’t know how to stand still and wanted to walk in circles. Sometimes she got pushy with her muzzle.

The rider got criticism from other people at the barn; the mare just needed to work more, she was bored, that all horses need a job, etc. But working in the traditional ways (lunging) made the mare even busier and soon frantic.  Finally, the rider settled on the goal of teaching her to do nothing. A great idea! And now supporters were talking about sitting in a chair in her pen.

Humans can be such extremists.

The rider has a good start; she’s listening. The mare is very young and moving a horse to a new barn is much more challenging for them than we understand. Settling in with a new owner and a new herd takes time. We can list her bad behaviors but focusing on correcting her mistakes and not dealing with the underlying problem will only have limited success. The mare sounds very anxious.

After such a huge life change, I’d expect this young mare might have a sour stomach, if not ulcers. First thing is always to make sure she is physically okay. Because change is hard and these calming signals may also be symptoms of pain.

Some folks would say that mares are just that way. They use names to describe mares that we women don’t like being called. Well, it’s true that mares are more like stallions than they are geldings… they have hormones. In my experience, mares don’t enjoy blind repetition of menial work like some geldings can. Mares are smart and want more engagement. I think it speaks well of them to require their riders to be more creative.

And kudos for stopping the frantic lunging. It sounds like this young mare knows all about it. People mistake the purpose of lunging and use it to wear a horse out. It wears out they bodies, too, and while exhaustion can pass for obedience, it doesn’t teach the horse a thing. Or most riders either, apparently, since it is still common advice.

Sitting with her is harmless enough. It’s fun in the pen with horses. Some people bring a book. The mare can tell she isn’t being asked to do anything so it’s probably peaceful. But be clear; this isn’t building relationship either. The stress comes with being handled and that’s where the healing will come, too.

Responding to horses doesn’t have to be fast and aggressive. Or dull and passive. We can do better than these extremes.

First, this mare gets quick from anxiety. Every time you see a hint of anxiety, slow down right away. Help her feel safe. Rather than punishing her behaviors, find ways to reward her. Affirming good behaviors builds confidence–the opposite of anxiety.

Less correction; more direction.

To get ahead of her behavior curve we must go from being reactive to her problems to proactive to help her past them.

If she is quick, I’d ask her for slow answers. Leading her, I’d ask for a few steps. Start at her speed and then slow your feet. If she gives a tiny hesitation, reward her generously and walk on. Ask for some long strides and then short strides. Eventually, when she is following your stride changes, ask for a halt. Ask with your exhale. Ask with your feet. Leave the lead rope hang. If she barely pauses, reward her and walk on. The next time she’ll give you more because it went well. Because she can listen to your feet better than your hands.

Be the change you want to see in your horse. If she is hot, you cool your body movements. If she is reluctant to walk, you lighten and lift your body movements. Correct yourself. Ignore what you don’t like. Reward her every try.

Do it all in slow motion. Affirm peace. Let your exhale be audible. Lead by example; keep your heart quiet, your breath deep, and your hands soft. Let there be hang time after your cues. If you don’t want her to escalate, then don’t you escalate. Be relentlessly focused and internally slow, even if you are walking quickly.

It won’t be perfect. In the beginning, it’ll be a hot mess and your only goal is to interrupt your mare’s free-fall to panic. If there is a hesitation in her anxiety, reward that.

Think of the words good girl as an affirmation of what will come, rather than a reward for a completed behavior. Eventually the two of you will fluidly shadow each other, but for now, lower your expectations. Nothing kills her try quicker than being told everything she does isn’t good enough. Humans understand that feeling, don’t we?

Reward anything that looks thoughtful. In the past, cues have escalated to punishment. She’s been trained to answer too quickly. Give her time to reason it out. Slow. Down.

Sometimes she’ll hesitate too long. She isn’t being disrespectful. I think they know when it’s been too long and sometimes do a deer-in-headlights response, frozen waiting for the inevitable punishment. On the surface, it looks like disobedience. Take a breath and change the subject. Save her from that dread; start over fresh.

Demonstrate the behavior you’d like your mare to emulate. The patience you show her today will be returned to you. At some future time, when other horses might quit or panic, she will hold strong. She’ll pay it back when it matters.

Next week I’ll write about lunging as a positive aid rather than a punishment. For now, I want to affirm the importance of positive early training.

I’m on the board of Colorado Horse Rescue Network and we had an open shelter day recently. The goal was to help people who needed to let go of their horses. Of the thirty-five horses that were relinquished, twenty-three were mares. Those numbers are common; mares outnumber geldings in rescue. It says more about humans than mares, I think.

Good training requires us to go beyond old methods and understand the value subtlety and finesse. Training is an art. Let it lift both of you.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Bit or Bitless? You Won’t Like the Answer.


Does anyone agree on bits? No. Is riding bitless the perfect solution? No. I’ve been asked for some bitless information, and I’m not sure I can even do that without talking bits, too. Even then, it’s idle chatter if there is no horse in the conversation.

Usually, I rant about the foolish habit of moving to a stronger bit when your horse gets fussy in the “gentle” one he’s in now. Like metal on bone is ever gentle. Usually, I’m blunt and say something like,

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

Then someone chirps up that a bit is only as kind or cruel as the hands on the reins. Truth. We’ve all see snaffles used like weapons, yes.

It’s just about then that the Amen Choir sings the praises of riding bitless. It feels like they’re claiming the moral high ground, riding without a bit, and the rest of us poor riders using snaffles are no better than dominators with gruesome spade bits. Then bit-users think bitless riders are incapable of anything but trail riding. Sigh.

Like every bitless bridle is created equal. Like every horse has the same mouth conformation. Like just for this once, an answer could be cut and dried; black and white. No luck.

Now it’s my unfortunate task to remind riders of two things: First, the horse’s bit shouldn’t matter much because we ride with our seats on their backs, not with our hands in their mouths. Because we ride back to front. Because if the horse is forward and balanced, his head will be correct for his conformation, in a bridle or at liberty in the pasture.

Second, but probably more important, it isn’t up to you to pick which bit (as long as it’s dressage legal) or bitless bridle you use. It’s up to your horse.

Back in the dark ages, I thought I was using a mild snaffle bit. My trainer recommended it but my horse practically did backflips. I learned that if a horse has a low palate, that middle joint can be excruciatingly (nutcracker) painful. These days, more horses seem to prefer three-link or French link snaffles. Yay.

But some horses seem to not like that metallic noise or the taste or hardness, and they prefer Happy Mouth bits. They’re the ones with the ivory-colored plastic that’s a little like your dog’s Nylabone. Or maybe they think links are over-flexible and they prefer something more solid like a Mullen-mouth bit.

All of these bits are dressage legal with no shanks. Each works slightly differently and remains on the light side, as bits come and go, and are preferable to a more severe bit. I’ve listened and read, year after year, opinions and reviews of how these bits work and who should use them. I have had success and failure with each of them. People can agree that they are mild bits, but after that, horses will still have their own opinion.

But let’s say you want to try something different –no bit at all. There are rope halters with rings tied into knots on the noseband. It’s “just a halter” but hard on noses if they fit too loosely and slide around. Traditional hackamores have no bit but can have shanks and chain curb straps… A linked snaffle could be kinder.

There are side pulls that have a noseband with rings on either side for the reins, like riding with a rope tied to your halter. If you are critical of nosebands on conventional bridles, this is a good choice but remember that this noseband shouldn’t be cranked down either. There are converter nosebands that have loops to attach the reins. Rather than a buckle that you secure loosely, it’s just a slide and the noseband works like a noose if it gets tighter but doesn’t release when you slack the rein.

So, maybe a bridle with a noseband that can be buckled loosely and a cross-under attachment to reins, so when you ask with your inside rein, it cues the outside cheek, if that makes sense. (Shown on the horse in above photo.) This version has good balance but again, the cross-under needs to release as reins are released.

The traditional bitless attachment favored in Europe is a metal wheel or flower shaped piece attached to the bridle and I’ve seen horses prefer this to a cross-under design.

If you try a bitless bridle, go slow and be safe. Try it in an arena on a good day, after your horse is warmed up. Some horses will lick and chew and love it right away but the rider will lose confidence. Some horses don’t like pressure on their nose and they lose confidence bitless, preferring the familiarity of a bit. Listen to your horse.

If a rider thinks that bitless is necessarily better or easier, sorry. Then this one other detail: Changing bridles doesn’t change a thing about your hands.

When people talk about bits or bitless, there is so much passion and hard-felt opinion and I’ve heard it all from all sides, pro and con. And in my mind, I still see that trainer-who-shall-go-unnamed slamming his fist down and back, while his horse is already inches behind the vertical. The same cruel position is available in a bitless bridle. There is no moral high ground when it comes to aggression against a horse.

If your horse is still fussy with his head and you think your hands are fine, who’s right?

I think you know the answer. And this is why so many of us have piles of new but useless bits in our tack boxes. Roughly half of my riders are bitless and half are in simple snaffles. As a trainer, I have a sweet collection of kind bits and different bitless options that I keep around so my clients can try them without having to buy them immediately. I recommend this try-out method and while you’re there, sign up for lessons.

Rather than conversations about which bit is kinder, I would rather see people actually make the effort to learn kind contact with a good trainer. It’s the most subtle and challenging work a rider can take on, learning to maintain a neutral seat and working in balance with a horse. Learning to quiet our instinct to control the last four inches of a horse’s nose and instead ride the entire horse, relaxed and forward. There is simply nothing more important.

Contact is like holding hands with someone you are so comfortable with, that there’s overlap where they begin and you end.   Good contact is moving forward through space without gravity or dependence on anything more concrete than the flow of movement that is oneness.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Learning to Love Negotiation

Rule number one about horses: There will be a high learning curve. Most of us are drawn to horses because we feel some sort of connection. It doesn’t matter if we grew up with horses or only saw them in books, eventually, we find our way to a barn.

When we get there, some of us stand in silent awe and some of us are so overwhelmed by emotion that we might as well be screaming for the Beatles in 1964. It doesn’t matter where we start on that emotional continuum because as time passes, we’ll make every stop. Each of the seven deadly sins will be our own.

There is hardly a lesson where I don’t use the word continuum. In my mind, I see it as a pendulum on a clock, swinging in an arc from one extreme to the other. We are too afraid or we are too complacent. We punish too much or we sent no boundaries. We try too hard or we quit too soon. We are silent with our cues or we scream bloody murder.

Too much or too little, we understand the extreme edges of the continuum but the subtleties of the sweet spot in the middle can be hard to locate.

Humans aren’t great with nuance. We’re predators and we want what we want. Now. Our idea of leadership is to get our way and often we define success by clawing our way to money or fame. Even that isn’t enough; then we worry about how other people will judge us.

Meanwhile, horses are prey animals and that means constantly being aware of what’s happening outside their own mind and negotiating their safety. In herd life, the best leaders are the ones who keep the herd secure.

It’s right about here that I wonder for the umpteenth time, what is it about horses that draw us so strongly. It certainly isn’t our similarity.

Then, to make it all a bit more complex, not all humans are created equal. (We make laws, but it’s still true.) Some humans, predators by birth, also have the experience of being prey in our own herd. We have experienced the dark side of domination and we know that fear doesn’t equal respect. We know what it means to not trust our own kind.

When we want to escape the world, we go to the barn to find that equine connection we crave but as we begin learning horsemanship, often we’re taught to train with intimidation. The irony should not be lost on us.

This is all true before we every pick up a lead rope much less ride, and it deserves our consideration as we teeter on this continuum. Some humans have been negotiating their position in the world forever. What if that was an asset while working with horses?

Have you noticed that I’m being very careful with my pronouns? Our culture describes behaviors with a gender-related pejorative term. “Act like a man.” “Throw like a girl.”

And in an age when bullies can be mistaken for as strong leaders, being a good negotiator doesn’t have much rock star appeal.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a horse. That gift of acceptance over criticism has a huge value to a horse who’s fearful. Fear is a wild emotion that doesn’t go into a corner well. There is simply no aggressive response that works against fear. Traditional thought is to push a horse through it but no matter how exhausted a horse gets from intimidation the result is not going to be positive. Fear becomes institutionalized, not released.

Instead, let the negotiation begin. Can I ask for his eye? Good, release. May I enter his space? No? Okay, I hear you. Breathe. Step back. He looks at me like I might be unusual. I am making the middle of the continuum look attractive. I linger there, and let him take it in. Moments pass. May I come? Will you consider connecting?

Maybe he turns. His eyes go deep and dark and quietly, he offers me something indescribable. It might be his heart and the vulnerability slams me with awe. No, now especially, breathe! If a trainer feels frustration or anger, they should step back and decompress, but I do the same thing when I become besotted. For as much as I do love horses, I respect them more. Any communication that we have with runaway emotions, positive or negative, will cloud the negotiation. I want to be a place of safety, so I choose to stay emotionally level. My inner horse-crazy girl can jump up and down later.

I thrive on the creativity needed when working with horses, especially the ones who have been trained to not trust people. Some of us complain that we aren’t as brave as when we were younger. What if that’s the trade for better perception in the moment?

What if we let go of that certainty of ego and judgment and learn to honor the skill of negotiation.

Name-calling right or wrong is a superficial dead-end position to hold.  Positive training means making confidence easy for a horse. That’s setting it up so you can say yes, all the time. It isn’t a lack of respect in the horse or the trainer but the exact opposite. When that mutual respect becomes a habit, it turns into trust.

Great trainers of any discipline come to the place of understanding beyond domination.  Leadership is a humble service given with kindness. Security exists when both sides truly understand that for trust to exist, there is no place for intimidation.

If I were to use a gender-related pejorative term for that, I might say they train “like a girl.” In the perfect world, it would be a compliment.

 

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

Mounting Block Conversations

This is Andante. He likes to have a conversation at the mounting block. He wasn’t always like this. In his younger days, he was afraid of most everything. It was fair; he didn’t have a great start in life but that isn’t the important part. Back then, the mounting block wasn’t his favorite thing. Now it is.

He likes to spend a few minutes tapping it with his hoof; it makes that hollow plastic sound. He side-passes over it when asked –because he’s tall and it works. It’s a kind of groundwork that he and his rider enjoy; just a connecting time. He initiates it now and we all congratulate him. After a few minutes, he’s asked to stand still and he does.

Lately, he’s added this twist; he’s taken to doing stretches himself, at first only with his left leg, and then on request, both legs. His rider started the tapping game years ago to make the mounting block less scary and it turned into a game. It takes extra minutes in the beginning of the ride.

Before I get accused of coddling horses or training like a girl, again, I should add that Andante does challenging work, training up the dressage levels, working on light contact, pushing like a freight train, and dancing like a ballerina. I have great respect for this horse and the training he and his rider have done.

You could say these antics mean that his lesson starts late. We think he’s started teaching early. This ex-nervous horse reminds us it’s supposed to be fun because hard work and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Because riding is an art. He reminds us to stay in the present moment. The other words for that are horse time.

Our horses don’t much care about our dirty laundry or dinner plans or our riding ambitions. But we’re busy people. We want to ride. We want our hour, so we grab them out of their turnout, do a perfunctory grooming job, and pull to the arena. Then it’s hurry-time for training work crashing into horse time. Does this “Slam, bam, thank you, Ma’am” approach work well for anything of value?

(I’m going to assume that we all use mounting blocks because it’s good for horses. Look at a photo of a horse’s skeleton and it’s easy to understand why equine chiropractors say that the wither area is easy to mangle with ground mounting.)

Does your horse show any calming signals at the mounting block? Does he look away or stretch his head down. Is he fussy? Do you move the mounting block to him …more than once? Is it a place where he gets corrected three or four times before you’re even in the saddle? Is that really how you want to start? Gosh, and your ride didn’t go well?

Maybe it’s time to see your mounting block in a new light. I like to use them as a training aid. For people, mainly. 

If you’re looking for a partner, whether for dressage competition or for trail riding, it starts here. Would you like a total do-over at the mounting block?

Start here: With a halter and lead rope, walk to the mounting block. The lead must stay slack. Step to the top and stand there. Breathe. Clear your mind. Lay down your thoughts and lists and expectations. Stand still and breathe some more. Let go of your excuses and apologies. Be still mentally and watch your horse take a new interest in you. Then step back to the ground and give yourself a treat. Nice job of changing yourself. Yes, it’s just a start but this is how training works.

Go to the arena and this time, un-click the lead. Let your horse run and play. Cheer him on. Cue canters and trots by doing them yourself. Laugh. Remember why you love horses. Then take him back to the barn and curry him till he shines. Now you have his attention.

Go to the arena and stand on the mounting block and do some light lunging. You’ll notice you can’t move your feet much while standing there. Good, it will require smaller cues. Ask for different gaits and reverses. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen, and back to the barn. Confuse him with short work sessions.

Eventually, ask for walk/halt transitions. Take your time, let him think. Trust his answer and find an even better, smaller cue. Let time pass in quiet conversation. If he’s doing halts, in a small circle, both directions around the block, you’re almost there.

The lead is still loose and his head has forgotten how much it hated being pulled on. It’s a miracle. At some point of his choosing, he’ll step almost to the perfect spot to mount and halt. Almost but not quite. Here is a chance to be generous. Training amounts to successive approximation. Call it good, reward him, and go back to the barn. Yay for you. You didn’t nag on toward your idea of perfection while teaching him he’s never good enough. Instead, he remembers standing there in the right place with you being happy about it. Win.

The next time, he comes to the spot sooner and you spend a ridiculous amount of time standing on the block, scratching and rubbing his back and neck. Continue until he forgets he had anxiety at the mounting block. Until he wonders if you’ve taken a mail order course in faith healing. Until he thinks good things happen at the mounting block and he pulls toward the arena.

Reward your horse’s stillness with your own. Then congratulate your horse on teaching you patience.

In the perfect world, this work starts with yearlings, long before saddles and training. In the perfect world, the mounting block is an island of peace and safety in a chaotic world. Let it be a sacred place.

Cultivate the idea that the more you and your horse are together mentally on the ground, the better you will be in the saddle. That positive training starts with your mental state. Make your mind a place your horse wants to spend time. When he’s comfortable with that, he’ll invite you into his.

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

 

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.

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