Horsewoman. Internet. Wine.

It’s been a melancholy week at Infinity Farm. I’d call it the dog days of summer but truth is that it’s been feeling like fall for a few weeks already. It’s getting dark earlier but some days it feels like the sun isn’t even up by noon.

It’s cool enough for a sweatshirt for the night barn check and the season change means mice are starting to move to the house like snowbirds to Tucson. Turns out the cats have all gone vegan or something. Living on a farm isn’t what it used to be.

So, I’m sitting in my writing studio with a mouse is staring at me from my bookshelf. I wonder if I have fought his ancestors, which makes me spend just a bit too much time considering the big questions: Politics. Religion. Who else would eat the poison before the mouse? Is he too big for a fly swatter? Must I always fumble the Tupperware?

Even more despondent, I give in and do that thing that a certain sort of person does late at night on the internet. I’m not proud of it. It shows a lack of character and if my mother was alive, she would slap my hand away…

First, I get a glass of wine –a thick Cabernet that practically stains my teeth. And some chocolate with almonds because I know where this is going and I’ll need some energy in a while. Then I push back in my reclining office chair, put my feet up, and pull the hood of my sweatshirt forward until it nearly covers my eyes. In the dim light, the glow of my computer is as welcoming as a campfire.

A big slow exhale with no need to rush. I’m alone, except for the old dog snoring like someone’s weird uncle. I decide to call it ambiance. One finger goes to one key- D -and the address line auto-fills. It isn’t my first time on this salacious site…

Dreamhorse.com.  To our kind, it’s like a shameless social group where they don’t check your income or marital status.

No, I’m not looking for a horse. None of my clients are either. Still, I leer. I ogle, tilting my head to the side as my eyes devour photos of sleek horses for sale in other states. And then I pour over the descriptions. Some sound as if they were written by a used-car salesman and some by horse-crazy girls. They are equally reliable. I know better than to take the words literally: Bombproof. Sixteen hands. Schooling fourth level. And the one that makes me go mushy… Needs experienced rider.

Oh, my heart. Shouldn’t horse ads have a literary category of their own, something between Crime Fiction and Romance?

After the wine is gone and many pages have been viewed, I doze off to that world where I’m not quite a horse and not quite human.


Available: Mature Gray Mare

Registered name: Shez Gotta Doit Herway   Barn Name: Anna

Breed: Grade, DNA test shows some of everything.

First schooled in Pleasure, Reining, and Trail. Currently a dressage schoolmaster with remarkably poor gaits. Not lame really. Just a bit uneven. Big hooves, good teeth, easy keeper. Not exactly uphill.

Classically trained, boss mare skills, and still sits a wicked reining spin. Veteran of all kinds of freestyle; loves to dance. Will tell you how to do it correctly and then stand around breathing until you take her cue. But no exceptions; she won’t let you on without a helmet.

Loves trailers, will stand for the right farrier. Will also kick when required but her intolerance for bad manners shouldn’t be confused with stubbornness. Prefers body work and a dirt bath to “a cookie.” No plans to retire. Dreams of hock injections.

Comes with two donkeys. And a goat. Some ducks that quit laying. A few dogs and some useless cats. And a small herd of horses, all more uneven than her.

Price: Private treaty, of course.


Writing a horse ad is only a temporary silly distraction but who doesn’t need that? Some of us tell the brutal truth and some of us flatter ourselves. (You wouldn’t be the first filly to fudge your stats.) How would your Dreamhorse ad read? At the very least, tell us your registered name.

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

Redefining Work Under Saddle.

I had a blog request, in two parts. First: “[Does] training and working a horse inherently make a horse less “happy.” I know I am happier on vacation, but that doesn’t mean work is bad for me. Balance is key right? When is it too much? When is it too little? I had one trainer tell me “don’t let her (my mare) get away with that! You work 8 hours a day, she can give you 45 minutes.” 

First, is she sound? She can’t give you 45 minutes if her saddle doesn’t fit or if her feet aren’t trimmed properly. It’s too much time if her back is sore or if she has ulcers. Is she in her heat cycle? Here is the tricky part: What if you think it’s all good but she’s still cranky? Who’s right? Of course, she is. Keep looking.

Let’s assume all is well. Does working a horse make them inherently less “happy?” Well, horses are all individuals. That’s what’s fascinating about them. I’ve known many horses who were unhappy under saddle because of harsh training but also from just being misunderstood.

It’s depressing but I think some horses trade that hour under saddle for the rest of their life. Kind of like doing the dishes in exchange for a meal, they make a trade. I’m not critical; I like horses being owned and cared for. Some humans live lives of quiet desperation; I suppose horses could do the same.

It’s humans who make training hard work. We’re perfectionists and we like drama. We approach every new thing like a potential problem. A problem getting him in the trailer. A problem to get him over cross-rails. Early on, I had a client who moaned endlessly about her horse’s problem picking up the canter. (Is it obvious who it was that had the problem?) In the meantime, horses begin to hate arena work.

That doesn’t mean that horses want a life loitering in the pasture, eating treats, and waiting for the next farrier visit.

I think the majority of horses don’t want either extreme; not vacation and not work. They want a relationship with us. It’s a crazy notion. Humans aren’t a very emotionally stable species but perhaps they see some potential in us.

Second: “[My mare] was stopping at the gate every time we walked/trotted by clearly thinking the increase in physical exertion was unnecessary. She was not winded, or sweaty or tired in any way. Just didn’t enjoy my increase in focus and being pushed to work harder. I was new to riding and [my mare] was not new to riding.”

You’re partly right. It doesn’t sound like she’s tired but that doesn’t mean she “clearly” thinks the physical work is unnecessary. It’s easy to misread horses by superimposing human thoughts. Perhaps if you are new to riding, she was being patient. She knows more than you, after all. (Mares always do.) Of course, she doesn’t like being pushed to work harder. Why would she?

I’ve never met a horse or rider who’s benefited from domination. I’m not necessarily talking bloody whips and spurs. It could be the force of nagging passive aggressive legs and marginally repressed frustration or anger.

It’s about now that a rider could feel like giving up on lessons. You could decide that training and competing are cruel and you don’t want to fight. So, you think about just wandering the property or sticking to ground work or even retirement. But I still don’t think that’s what most horses want.

Stopping at the gate is a clear message from your mare. It isn’t a disobedience. You’re doing what your trainer suggests but your horse gets an opinion, too. A better question might be, “How can I have a better partnership with my mare?”

In case it isn’t obvious, beginning to ride is easy enough. Progressing past that entry-level is the hard part. That’s why there are so many long-time novice riders. The reason to hire a trainer and try to push past that point is because horses tolerate us when we ride badly. They routinely save our lives, literally or figuratively, giving us more grace than we deserve. Consider learning better riding skills, like following hands and an independent seat, as a thank-you gift to your horse.

If you are almost overwhelmed, then good. You’re starting to understand how challenging it is to ride kindly and well. It may take the lifetime of a horse to become a better rider for the next horse. You have no time to lose.

First, make sure you are laughing in your lessons, even if you throw your hands up at the same time. Horses like us when we laugh and it’s an antidote to trying too hard. Take riding seriously but do it with a light heart. Remind yourself that you love your horse. Then trust your horse to tell the truth.

Start here: Is your warm-up effective? If not, it’s the deal breaker from the horse’s side. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. If a horse wants out of the arena, we need to improve their experience there. Done properly, the “work” should make your horse feel strong, supple, and balanced.

If work has become a four-letter word to you and your horse, exchange it for another four-letter word –play. Horses taught me the more we blur the line between work and play, the better we all get along. It’s a change in perception.

Defining training as hard work that will only be learned through harsh struggle makes riding feel like a factory job.

Lift the conversation. Training is easier than that. Humans and horses both learn through positive reinforcement. In the end, good training is simply a collection of positive experiences. That’s the goal each ride. Warm-up well, ask for a few steps at a time, and reward your horse generously. Be zealous–even ambitious– but have laughter be your music.

Horses are beings of light. And so are we, remember?

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

Part Three: Riding Above Fear


This is what we knew then: It started with a dream of dancing hooves and a flowing mane. He was strong and fast, and you couldn’t tell where he stopped and you started.

This is what we know now: Your horse is frightened and you know it. Or you’re frightened and your horse knows it. And it doesn’t matter who started it. You’re here now.

(Part One explained how a horse’s anxiety gets confused with disobedience when we don’t listen to his calming signals. In Part Two, we redefined fear. Now we call that emotion common sense.)

Then Corey left this comment: So the only few lines or paragraph I would have liked to have seen …is the one describing all the methodologies out there one can try, with time and patience and constant forgiveness, before sending a misunderstood horse away to yet another home where lordy knows what will be done to him. IMHO……..

Okay, here goes. If you think this frightened horse is almost within your skill range and you have the aforementioned time and patience and constant forgiveness… or if you have acquired a huge dose of fear common sense but think your horse would be okay if you relaxed…

Begin here: Make sure your horse is sound. No, really, have the vet check him over. Call a chiropractor who does acupuncture. If the horse is the problem, he usually has a problem. Then, be safe. Wear a helmet. Remove your watch and work in horse time. Take good and kind care of both of you.

Anxiety is normal on both sides. Pretending it doesn’t exist isn’t the same thing as releasing it. Acknowledge the weird balance of dread and enthusiasm. Forgive each other again. Then know that this process will take some time.

Words matter. Negative corrections aren’t effective. Yelling “NO!” is a dead end. It isn’t instructive to horse or human. It’s right up there with yelling “Don’t be afraid!” or “Quit grabbing the reins!” or “Stop running!” Telling yourself or your horse what to not do is like trying to deny reality. Instead, create a new reality by using simple, clean, positive words like “Walk on.” “Breathe.” “Well done.” In other words…

Less correction. More direction.

Start at the beginning. Is there resistance during haltering? At the first sign of anxiety, pause and breathe. Humans tend to speed up when we get nervous. Before we know it, we’re wrestling with a thousand-pound flight animal, when slowing down in the first place could resolve the anxiety on both sides while it was still small and manageable. Go slow.

Then do something mysterious. Take the halter off and leave.

When you both volunteer for the halter, proceed to ground work. Ask for something small, like walking next to you, but you stay out of his space as much as he stays out of yours. Walk together independently. Take time to get it right; let him test your patience.

Think less about whether he’s right or wrong, and more about what your senses are telling you. Practice being less complacent. What are his ears saying? Use all your senses to “listen” to your horse. Soften your visual focus by using peripheral vision to see a wider view of your surroundings. In other words…

Less brain chatter. More physical awareness.

Listen to his calming signals. Cue his movement with your feet instead of your hands. Laugh when he gets it right, and even more when you do. Keep at it until both of you have let go of all the breath you’ve been holding. Then feel the anxiety begin to shift.

Stay with ground work for as long as you want. Build confidence by ground driving and doing horse agility. Your horse doesn’t care if you ever ride him again. Your relationship isn’t defined by proximity; it’s defined by trust. If you don’t share confidence on the ground there’s no reason to think it will magically appear when you’re in the saddle.

When it feels right, groom him and tack up. Go for a walk in the arena and stop at the mounting block. Check the strap on your helmet and climb the steps. Lay a soft hand on his neck and if he’s nervous, breathe until his poll releases. Until his eyes relax. Until he is peaceful and your belly is soft.

Only go as far as the beginning of anxiety and stop there. Release it while it’s still just a flash of an idea.

Then be mysterious again. Step down and go untack him. Remember where you started and celebrate the progress you’ve both made. Know there will be setbacks, so let this time be precious.

Find a good ground coach. Someone who is calm and breathes well. Then take tiny challenges, one after another. Slow and steady, throw your leg over and sit in the saddle at the mounting block. Breathe and feel your thigh muscles. They might need some air, too. Remember you love your horse and melt what is frozen. Dismount without taking a step and call it a win.

Next time, take a few steps. You don’t need to feel like you’re alone on the high dive… ask your ground coach to click on a lead rope and walk beside you and your horse to start. Take baby steps so everyone succeeds. There is no shame in working as a team. Then climb off before you want to.

Think rhythm. All good things for horses happen rhythmically: chewing, walking, breathing. All bad things come with a break in rhythm: bucking, bolting, spooking. Good riding for the horse means rhythm so that’s your first concern.

You can count your breath, focus on your sit-bones like a metronome, or ride to music. Whatever you like, just so it connects your spine to your horse’s movement in a slow, confidence-building rhythm. Then walk on.

When emotions arise, notice them. Refuse to demonize yourself or your horse. Breathe until the feelings get bored and leave.

This is the secret: Remember that science says that a horse’s response time is seven times quicker than ours? While they come apart ridiculously fast, they can also come back together quickly, if we ask them to. Humans believe in a snowball effect; if the horse shakes his head or any other small infraction, the inevitable end is a train wreck.

It isn’t true. If you take a breath as soon as you feel anxiety in your horse, and he will do the same. Other days, your horse might notice you go tense and blow his breath out so loud that you hear it and take his cue.

It’s a partnership; sometimes we carry them and sometimes they carry us. It doesn’t matter who starts it. Just so we all come home safe.

Then one day you notice that the dark thoughts are rare. Instead, you’re distracted by something bright and shiny. It’s your childhood dream, balanced with common sense, right here in real life.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Part Two: Now I’m Afraid

[Part One: My Horse Betrayed Me.]

Something bad happened. The details don’t need to be repeated for me to understand. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was; whether it was you or your horse. Excuses don’t help and emotions are rarely swayed by logic. Your trust has been broken.

Now you feel fear. Fear in the saddle. Fear about horses in general, but most importantly, fear toward your own horse. 

Disclaimer: I am not a therapist; I just act like it when I give riding lessons. 

First, can we all admit that tight feeling in the gut is something we have all know well? There is nothing unusual about a feeling of anxiety while climbing on a thousand-pound prey animal with keen senses and a flight response. It’s normal human instinct. 

The most common thing that good horsewomen tell me is that they don’t ride like they did when they were kids–as if that’s a bad thing. Kids don’t have good hands or clear cues; what I remember most is going where the horse wanted to because I had no steering. Some of us rode fast and bounced when we fell, but the truth remains. Riding wilder is not better. It frightens horses. Bravado or dumb luck will never qualify as good horsemanship.

And worst of all, there is a huge ration of self-loathing that comes along when a rider admits they’re timid. It takes up as much room in a rider’s heart as the fear does. It’s the self-loathing that hurts the most to hear and see in a client. I’m certain horses feel the same.

Well, words matter. I’m going go back and do some editing before we continue.

Now you feel fear common sense. Fear Common sense in the saddle. Fear Common sense about horses in general, but most importantly, fear common sense toward your own horse.

The problem isn’t that we have fear common sense, it’s that we love horses and aren’t giving them up. Now what?

In my experience, hard feelings grow in the dark. Most of us have some time or place that the bogey man threatens us. I won’t say ignore him; there’s usually a spark of truth there. You should be cautious about monsters under the bed (lock the house, be careful in parking lots, and yes, monitor the dangers of riding.) Part of that fear common sense is an instinct for self-preservation. Like a horse.

At the same time, it’s incredibly powerful to drag your bogey man out into the daylight. The first time you admit that you’re timid, your voice might quiver a bit but right after that, your heart starts beating again. Your jeans feel like you’ve lost weight. And you have.

Riders get told to relax because horses can read our emotions. It’s true but humans who listen with their eyes read them, too. It doesn’t matter what you think intellectually, how much experience you have with horses, or what you should have done. Act timid or act with bravado, but you aren’t fooling us, so why not admit it out loud?

Share your feelings. Notice that the rest of us are just like you and let go of the self-loathing part. Besides, a bogey man doesn’t have a chance in the broad daylight with a bunch of middle-aged women glaring at him.

And while we’re being honest, one more bit of sideways truth. However it happened that your trust was damaged, it wasn’t that you lost control of your horse. You never had control. As a recovering Type-A who thought she could steer her horse, and the rest of her life, to brilliant happiness, I feel qualified to say the sooner we get over thinking we can even control our hair, the better we’ll be.

Let it go. 

Forgive your horse. He responded by instinct; he didn’t betray you or want to hurt you. Forgive him because holding a grudge doesn’t work. Breathe and forgive him again. Feels good, doesn’t it?

If your fear common sense tells you he isn’t the horse for you, then lay down your silly ego and don’t be a martyr, owning him forever in purgatory. Confess that he’s the perfect horse… for someone else. Trade him for a horse who better suits you. It isn’t a failure to do what’s best for both of you.

Then forgive yourself. We are our own worst enemy and holding a grudge against our own instincts is crazy-making. Show your heart some tolerance and ask your brain to rest. Leave the trash talk to others.

Sit a little taller and remind yourself that you have a noble goal. To collaborate with another species in equality has been the life’s work of élite equestrians and children from the beginning of time. You have a rich heritage.

And there’s time. Horses are patient teachers and you’re lucky to have lifetime tuition. Buy the hay and you’re enrolled. On the ground or in the saddle, the lessons will be learned. Horses are perfect that way.

Most of all, count your blessings. Fear Common sense is not a tumor to be cut out. Fear Common sense isn’t a weakness, just as bravado isn’t courage. Think of it as a training aid. Fear is common sense trying to get your attention. Say thank you.

Word choice matters. We need to understand each other’s instincts for self-preservation because that’s how both species–horses and humans–will flourish.

 

If your fear is truly too big to have a conversation with and you freeze in the saddle and can’t breathe, just stop. If your anxiety is debilitating, get help from a real therapist. Do it for your horse, if not yourself. No joke. Having the bogey man with his hands on the reins is a truly dangerous place.

Short of that, just keep chipping away. Make friends with your instincts. Smile more. Reward yourself for small wins. Breathe. Go slow. Show yourself the kindness that you show your horse. Let him carry you to a better self.

Ever think about where courage comes from? It isn’t born of arrogance and success. It’s purchased, one drop at a time, by internal moments of persistence in the face of challenge.

You’ve got that. It’s holding to a truth about yourself. And then horses. In the process, keep your love just an inch bigger than your fear common sense and you’ll be fine.

[Next week: Riding Above Fear.]
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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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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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

Caring for the Lead Mare

It was a perfect day. There were just enough clouds to soften the heat. The front gate didn’t open once all day long. No emergency vet calls. Best of all, I had some fence to repair. Perfect.

There was still dew on the grass when I loaded up my yellow wagon with the t-post driver, post hole digger, and a bucket of hand tools, headed for the north pen. Like usual, I had to go back for the wire cutters. A few days before, I’d come home to find one of the geldings over the fence in my neighbor’s pasture. He was banged up and limping, posts bent with chunks of hair, and part of the fence pushed over.

I’d been thinking about a reader request: “Did you ever write a blog on the gossip/nit picking that goes on at boarding stables and from barn to barn especially in small communities? It never seems to end…”

I started cutting down the old field fence, laying it down, folding the end piece over, and walking on the edges to flatten it, and then repeating the process. Taking out perimeter fence is always unsettling. I depend on that line of demarcation as much to keep others out as to keep mine in.

I know what she means about the gossip. Horse people are a passionate and opinionated crowd. We all have that neighbor whose horses are just too thin. That barn that sold to new owners. Who’s laid up, who’s got a new horse, who’s struggling to get by? Those jumpers or reiners or dressage queens or trail riders who make us squint and whisper. The truth is almost all of us have been on both sides; gossip blows in the wind. It’s how we know to send a sympathy card and find the best trailer repair. It’s how we let people know we’re smarter than them.

By now Edgar Rice Burro is snoring. The gelding herd is scattered flat in the morning sun.  I sink down on a tire feeder and take a long drink, surveying the work I’ve done, feeling strong.

Most of my days are over-scheduled with training and lessons and writing. Crossing out days for fence repair is almost like a vacation. The work is simple and I can keep an eye on the pond while wondering what it is about us humans tearing each other down.

There are always litters of ducklings on the pond but this is the first time there are Canada geese hatchlings –four little ones and two relentlessly protective parents. They move in a tiny gaggle searching for bugs in the prairie grass and then waddling back to the pond. The parents constantly scan the horizon, so aware of the treasure they protect. What is it about us humans?

Time for new t-posts now. I eyeball the line, lean one way and then the other, and judge it straight enough. It’s never perfect, string guide or not. I’m just straight enough.

Some clients of mine have a new fence, professionally built with huge gate posts, tight corners, and as pretty a line of wire as I’ve ever seen. I’ve had offers of help, too, but I like to hoard this time for me and my land. The birds are so loud that I can barely hear the fence post driver.

Another hour passes and I stop for lunch and a small nap. I’ve read that countries who practice siesta have better health. Some folks prefer a blanket but I use a Corgi for that. I nap for my health. Really.

Back out after the sun has peaked. Nickers follow me, I throw more hay, and then grab my fork. Mucking is a time-honored ritual for true horse lovers. No complaints while pulling the cart from pen to pen, celebrating healthy manure. Never trust a horseperson who doesn’t muck.

Finally, I make my way to the west pen where the ancient donkey leans into her scratching post, slowly rocking with her neck stretched low and her eyes closed. I almost feel like I should look away; her sublime bliss is too naked. But I keep my wits about me. She’ll still kick if I startle her and bray with impatience if I’m late with her mush. This little donkey isn’t burdened with the need to be a people pleaser. I’m learning it from her.

I scrub some water tanks and try to fill them without flooding the runs. My mare lets me know it’s time to come in from turnout; she wants me to bring her in first. That way she can nip at the geldings as they pass her run. I check my watch; I’ve lost hours tinkering through chores and the afternoon is gone. She’s right.

There’s something about early summer. The light lingers in pastel color. Hours later, as I carry the last bucket of mush out to the ancient donkey, the grass is cool again and the prairie moon illuminates all the best and worst of the world.

I have no idea what to do about all the negative chatter. It wears me down, too. We’re an imperfect species and sometimes we need to build better boundaries to keep our hearts safe. Give ourselves time to rest and time to nurture our hope for the future. And the strength to find a truthful, yet kind, voice to lift the quality of gossip.

Some women have salon days but some of us practice self-care by spending the day being part Canada Goose, part Corgi, and part wise old Longear. Miracle cure.

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