Calming Signals and Pain

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Severe Weather Warning

It was 78 degrees yesterday. It’s late October so the sun is lower in the sky. There was a slight breeze that would have been perfect for riding but I was testing the tank heaters. Then the winds came howling, tearing the last leaves free. The sky turned a sweet apricot color, tinted by a grass fire to the north. Temperatures tonight will drop to 18 degrees with blowing snow. Like they say, ’tis a privilege to live in Colorado.

It’s a dry cold here on the high desert prairie but everyone has shelter. Winter coats have grown in dappled and thick. I throw more hay on nights like this to keep their internal heaters working but I don’t blanket the horses in my barn as a rule.

Except for this ancient one. Lilith. She came to rescue a couple of years back, not eating or drinking, and so thin that we worried she was dying. But she’s a longear. She outsmarted us.

Last year I bought her a blanket for the wet spring snows that left her shivering. She has expired teeth, so feeding more hay doesn’t work. The mush she gets several times a day usually freezes before she finishes it.

To be clear, there is no reason for elders to grow thin in the winter.

This year, she’s even more wobbly when she gets stiff, so the blanket came out early. Still, I’m not foolish enough to try blanketing her on my own. I know what you’re thinking. She’s barely bigger than a goat. Perhaps after you trim that goat’s hooves you’ll have a better idea about how this all works.  So, because I wasn’t born yesterday either, I held off blanketing until help arrived. By midmorning, the temps had dropped ten degrees and the wind was getting stronger. And yes, Lilith may be nearly blind now but not so much as to not see what our plan was.

I stood still while my barn manager did a stilted two-step with Lilith. We go slow, we breathe. We both preach this stuff every day. Then Lilith drags my barn manager, in limping slow-motion, the length of the run as I slowly introduce the blanket. To be clear, the two of us humans outweigh Lilith but she has a kind of lateral gravity to her lean. She’s unstoppable. I’m hoping we’ll grind to a halt by the end of the run.

Meanwhile, I’ve managed to get one of the front buckles done on the blanket. That’s the easy part. Hooking the belly straps are harder and I’m not wearing a helmet. I try to strike that balance of quickness without jerking, coordination without dawdling. I almost manage it, the blanket is on, and we let her go.

Lilith dodders away indignantly. We can tell because she kicks at each of us as she goes. Sure, we smile but both of us has had hoof contact from this old donkey. More than once.

A few feet away she turns and glares us. She wears her blanket like a house dress. Like a bright turquoise muu-muu, huge on top with her tiny ankles dangling out below. Just when I am trying to remember which of my mother’s sisters she reminds me of, Lilith marches quickly toward me, flopping her ears back to the angle of a jet wing.

She’s demanding a forehead rub with the obligatory cleaning of her eye snot. I oblige, being careful to not touch her ears. She’s made it clear that they were twitched sometime in the last forty years and I had better pay attention. I just do as I’m told. No hearts and flowers.

She abruptly turns and leaves again with a smaller kick this time. Only marginally dangerous. Another pause with a withering stare before she marches herself over to my barn manager and demands the same homage. Again, given as required and without hesitation.

There is never a shred of doubt what Lilith means. Even if some of her feelings contradict each other, she has an undeniable clarity. Our other longear, Edgar Rice Burro, is just as plain. One more time, I recite my fervent wish that people would express themselves as honestly. We bite our tongues until we explode. Donkeys have it right. Bluntness is a virtue.

Spring and fall are rough seasons for elders. Extreme weather changes create problems for equine digestive systems that were poorly designed in the first place. Dare I call it by its name? This is colic weather. Beware.

This year I read a scientific article that debunked all the anecdotal things we think we know about colic. Anecdotal evidence is frowned on in the science world, even if they haven’t figured out a cure.

Colic is still the number one killer of horses. Treatment hasn’t changed much in the last decades. Drugs are better but the condition is still extremely dangerous.  The article said colic wasn’t tied to heat cycles or getting new hay or changes in barometric pressure (coming storms). Maybe I’m turning into Lilith but I’m cranky and skeptical. I’ve been schooled by seasons in the barn. If weather change is only superstition and not fact-based, why is the vet always out on a series of colic calls on nights like this?

Do you dread these dark blustering months as much as I do? It’s become a habit to make sure horses are doing more than just sniffing their hay, while at the same time casually counting manure piles in their runs.

Because the equine truth lies somewhere between old wives’ tales and hard science.

So, I stay up late for one more feeding. I’ve got my heavy barn coat and muck boots, and a head light strapped on my wool hat. Leaning into the wind, I drag one more feeding of hay to all the shelters. The old chestnut gelding is struggling with his arthritic knee but the new horse has settled in well. The rest of the herd looks okay for the night.

The Haloween wind howls at my back as I return to the house. There isn’t much good to say about the haunted dark and cold months. My Grandfather Horse won’t have to fight the north wind this winter. In a bittersweet way, I’ll be glad of that small blessing.

….
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.

How to Relieve Your Horse’s Anxiety


Growing up, only one person in our home was allowed to have a temper and the rest of us kept our heads down.

After I left home, I started therapy and tennis lessons. It was the beginning of the age of bad-boy Grand Slam winners. Some of the top players competed without visual emotion, while others blew up on the court. The crazy thing was that the bad-boys played better after their temper tantrum, and if my therapist was right, it had to do with getting the emotion out. Every time I saw a racket slam the ground, I felt a morbid attraction.

I envied their tempers. I knew it was wrong and rude. I’d been taught that the punishment wasn’t worth the tantrum. Instead, I was busy holding my stomach in, my feelings in, and silently tending wicked grudges.

The trouble with being stoic, as any stoic horse will tell you, is that you don’t have fewer feelings; you just try harder to hide them.

So here in our adult horse world, lots of us don’t want to compete because we see that emotional hostility and unleashed desire to win. We want nothing to do with it. Horses frequently suffer from our human passion and so it’s better to claim the high moral ground and not compete. Because we love horses.

Yay, you. Now you’ll never throw a temper tantrum at a show. And all your training challenges dissipate like fog in the sun because you’re calm and kind.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Our perfect horses have issues. We are quick to blame past owners. It might even be true, but the other thing that’s true is that we care about how things go with our horses. We are totally capable of having “show nerves” during an emergency vet call. Sometimes just standing next to our horse in the pasture is enough.

Here is a list of things you are perfectly justified in feeling anxiety about in the horse you love: Spooking unexpectedly. Going too fast. Won’t stand still. Has separation anxiety. Doesn’t go forward or appreciate your feet telling him to. Won’t canter. Doesn’t like arenas. Or trailering. Or being nagged to a stupor.

Let’s say he’s flawless under-saddle. You might resent his chronic vet issues. His constant need for a farrier. Costly supplements. His persistent habit of continuing to get older every year. His eventual need to retire and the unfairness of loving horses in the first place.

(For the sake of brevity, I won’t add the non-horse angst humans feel about their human relationships, financial dramas, and inevitable mortality. This list is infinitely longer.)

Here is a list of who knows about your anxiety no matter how politely you try to hide it: Your horse.

The trouble with being stoic, as any stoic horse will tell you, is that you can only pretend as long as you can pretend.

Apparently, the challenges of daily life can rival the stress of competing in the Olympics. But go ahead, make lists and hurry about. Try to tell yourself that you aren’t being judged every second, by everyone you see. Then try to tell yourself that you aren’t the harshest judge of all.

Maybe now is when you acknowledge that your horse is your therapy. Let me kill that baby, too, while I’m being such a spoil-sport. Therapy horses have the hardest job in the horse world. Period. Being a show horse owned by a neurotic overachiever is easier than the being a therapy horse. They are saints. Until they aren’t.

The trouble with being stoic, as any stoic horse will tell you, is that anxiety will win in the end, unless we call it out.

So, here are my tips for competing in huge important shows or in your ordinary life:

First, get lots of sleep. If you can’t sleep, lay there deep breathing. When your thoughts turn to the destruction of the world as you know it, kindly go back to deep breathing.

When you get up finally, look in the mirror and smile. Sure, you look like the dog’s breakfast, but if you truly can’t smile, call a real therapist. Life is too short for excuses. It’s time to stop floundering in confusion and acid grudges and good intentions. Set an appointment and do your horse a favor.

Want to know my personal secret weapon? I keep low expectations. Not because of self-doubt; I consider it balance. We all run just a bit hot when it comes to horses. Our dreams scream in a silent dog whistle pitch that we can’t hear. Our love burns like a flame thrower next to a stack of last year’s hay. We’re not fooling anyone with our obsessive-compulsive passion. It’s better to bring it out in broad daylight and do some groundwork with our emotions.

Try the hardest thing and ask for less from yourself. Ignore the problems and celebrate the easy work. Reward the calming signals you give yourself. Just say yes. Sing with the radio, let your belly relax, and leave the dishes for later. Have ridiculously low expectations so you can constantly surprise yourself with your own goodness. Then look in the mirror again. Notice the wrinkles and the stained teeth as you smile and truly mean it when you say thank you.

Now you’re ready to go to the barn. Does your horse still have anxiety? Congratulations. You’re ready to become part of the solution.

 

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

The frail filament strands that
suspend us in parallel travel
are intricately woven back onto
themselves, situated so cleverly that
one day we're asked to lead the ones

who helped us find the way. To lift
and carry those who shouldered
our weight in another time, on a 
passage of interlaced perseverance 
armored with gratitude.
….
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.)

Bridge

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

Calming Signals: YOUR Response.

Photo by Sheri Kerley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calming Signals and the Aggressive Horse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calming Signals: The Dance of the Halter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Equine Retirement Planning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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