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

Learning to Love Negotiation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Mounting Block Conversations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….
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

Photo Challenge: Danger

The danger of horses is not 
their strength and power, 
thrusting forward with a brilliant 
heart, ribboned with intelligence- 
clean and authentic and never 
quite under our control. 

It isn't our earthbound worries 
or the fear of injury. The danger 
of horses is that we will fall short 
of their vulnerability; fall short  
of their wild beauty. The danger is 
that we may never feel that free.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon  
(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.)

Danger

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

Photo Challenge: Wanderlust

WM Edgar eye close

It’s the irresistible call
to scout hidden ravines and
gaze along the elevated vistas
from the edge of an eyelash.

A wish to explore generations
of memories, honor and courage
beyond self, cautiously stored in
the language of ancient travelers.

Ask permission at the gate,
take the solitary unmarked path
meandering the full distance
between his head and his heart.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon  
(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.)

Wanderlust

Concept Clinics: A different approach

Mainstay

I’ve been thinking for a while now about the process of learning. It could have something to do with the number of times trainers told me to do things that didn’t make sense to me. Sometimes threads would come together and I’d have a flash. Some things took years to dawn on me. Now that I’m the trainer, I try to do better connecting the dots.

Then I read about linear thinking (a sequential progression to a logical end)  versus non-linear or spherical thinking (connected thought in multiple areas, rather than one, based on the concept that there is more than one way to apply logic.) Non-linear is more creative and dimensional. It gives a rider more ways to understand–like having several doors into a barn instead of just one.

It’s a smarter way to train horses. As a professional, I depend on a toolbox brimming with techniques because horses are each sentient unique creatures and one size does not fit all. I notice the same thing is true of humans.

And ok, it happens to be the way my mind works, too. So I’ve applied that idea, and a few others I know about how people learn, and designed three clinics that explain what I’m thinking.

Concept Clinics give riders an opportunity to explore a related group of ideas with exercises designed to clarify and deepen the awareness and practice of fundamental principles of communication and training.

Calming Signals If you are standing next to your horse and he looks away, do you think he’s distracted or even disrespectful? When your horse yawns, is he sleepy or bored? If he moves slowly, is he lazy?   Calming Signals is a concept clinic on the ground. We’ll learn to read and respond to calming signals with special attention to comprehension (active listening, intention, and focus). It’s a different approach to haltering, leading exercises, and your body language. I’ll say breathe a few thousand times. We’ll spend the rest of the day doing in-hand horse agility, where the conversation is the most fun.

Dressage Rhymes with Massage. If your horse is young, sound, and has had all the advantages, it takes twenty minutes for the synovial fluid to warm his joints. And that same twenty minutes for you. Warm up is by far the most important part of the ride for strength and positive attitude. This is a relaxed and forward Concept Clinic, using warm-up methods designed to help a horse be physically and mentally responsive. We’ll start with exercises to systematically warm-up and connect your horse. Clinic includes how to ride circles, riding balanced transitions and a different approach to asking for bend, as well as the use of a neck-ring, long rein, and correct contact. This clinic makes young horses steadier, midlife horses stronger, and elder horses more supple.

Rhythm and Dance Clinic. Rhythm is the foundation of the Dressage training pyramid. Rhythmic movement promotes relaxation (walking, grazing, trotting) and bad reactions always include a loss of rhythm (spooking, bucking, bolting.) We’ll use ground pole exercises to balance transitions, with special focus on the use of seat and legs to encourage rhythm and alter stride within gaits, using half-halts and lengthenings. This clinic includes Riding to Music and finishes with a quadrille or group ride.

I’ll continue my traditional clinics, but I’m also offering Concept clinics. (More information) If you’re interested in hosting one, I’m happy to travel, and I also keep a list of barns looking to partner with other barns on clinics.

Right now, I’d appreciate your feedback on the idea. What would you think about this sort of event? Is there a topic that would really benefit from this approach? How do you think and learn?

Thank you, I appreciate your thoughts.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon