How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist: Horse Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Leadership Percentages and Confused Horses

Pause here. Look in his eye. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. If we’re going to agree with scientists that horses are sentient beings, with feelings not unlike our own, when will we start treating them that way?

In riding lessons, I ask math questions a lot. Not real math, of course. It’s more a theoretical sort of math, like “what percent of your horse is forward” or “rate this trot on a scale from one to ten.” It’s short-hand to quantify where we are compared to where we started and where we’d like to be.

The usual way I hear short-hand math talked about in the barn is to quantify leadership. Like most horse things, there is a long continuum of opinion. Some demand their horse submits to 100% human leadership. Equine slavery, I’m thrilled to say, is not tolerated here. It’s easy to deplore. We shake our heads and tsk-tsk our tongues. But 100% cheerful compliance would be great.

We want a partnership with our horses. And once we really agree to that, the confusion and weird math begins. Should it be a 50-50 balance? Does the human get the deciding vote, 51-49? Or because you have a goal with your horse, 60-40? Or maybe you missed the vote entirely and you just go along for the ride, 90-10, to his favor.

Definition of leadership: The ability to provide another sentient the feeling of safety. In this case, a horse.

Humans are extremists. Sometimes, in an attempt to evolve and not dominate horses, we just chatter away kindly. We over-cue, carefully introducing their halter for the millionth time and the horse might even politely sniff it. Maybe he thinks he should because we act like it’s a brand-new thing each time. We chatter about cleaning his feet and might even think he’s listening, when the truth is that it’s the same order of hooves every time. A horse would have to be brain-damaged to not learn that pattern and obligingly pick up his foot.

In other words, we think we’re training things that they know inside-out. It’s like reading a grade school primer in college. Boring at best. Worst is they think we aren’t all that bright. What would it take to teach up to his level?

I think horses kindly recognize human chatter as a calming signal. Meaning it calms us to chatter away. Maybe they assess what percentage of their rider is stressed out and roles reverse.

Definition of chatter: The rattle and bang of constant noise. Legs and seat and hands and voice that just never stop flapping and nicking and correcting. As annoying as flies buzzing, landing, circling, and buzzing some more. It’s the crazy-making babbel that any self-respecting horse would shut out to save his sanity.

About this time, since we don’t want to dominate or chatter away, we decide to listen. No, really listen. We learn their calming signals and their unique detailed preferences. The more we listen, the more they share, affirmed that humans are pulling it together. It’s thrilling to have a corner of understanding that didn’t start in a human brain, but instead is something you learned from a horse. Listening is pure joy.

We listen to our horses so hard, with such focus and patience… that our horses hear crickets. Silence from us. They revert to doubting our intelligence and worry that they are the only sentients in the room. Horses might wonder if, between the scream of domination and the silence of listening, humans are void of the ability to have a simple conversation.

Definition of a conversation: Cues that might be body language or movement, or intention –eye contact along with a thought. The least important part is verbal. The most important part is that there are two sides conversing.

The focus is to shape a response on both sides. You give a cue for walking and pause. He considers the request and walks. You release your cue and breathe normally and follow the flow of his walk. In the beginning, it feels stilted like an Intro to French class. (Bonjour, comment vas-tu? Bon, Merci et vous?) But don’t get impatient and talk over each other.

Any positive training conversation starts with rewarding a good basic response. Behavioral science calls it ‘successive approximation’ implying an approximate answer, not the correct one.

In other words, one of you giving your best hints until the other guesses the right answer, like a game of equine charades. Creativity! A language between two species is born! Hear the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey? You get it.

How to quantify that kind of leadership conversation? 50-50 feels too flat and dull.

I think it might be an 80-20 percentage, but not static. The idea-and-response flip sides between the human and the horse in an instant. It’s a flash of intention and a spark of response. A cool breeze of release followed by quicksilver inspiration. So fluid that he finishes the thought before you fully articulate it. And his response was lighter and more beautiful than you imagined. It’s a dance that switches leader and follower every few strides.

If a rider complains about a lack of response in their horse, guessing that they only have 20% their horse’s attention, I think a better question might be what percentage of their attention is on their horse? Do we think it’s his job to hang in suspended animation until our next command? Isn’t that how domination works?

Why do humans limit an animal’s response by talking down to them? What if a better name for an unresponsive horse is a bored horse?

The art of communication with horses means evolving a language of successive approximation to a place of happy response on both sides. It takes a quiet and quick listening mind on the part of the human, along the same amount of physical self-awareness that a horse has. That’s the hard part. It would always be easier for a human to dominate or be passive.

Pause here. Look in his eye again. He’s sensitive and intelligent and looking for a partner who’s his equal. The question isn’t if he’ll meet our expectations. It’s what will we need to do meet his.

(Next week: How to be a Brilliant Conversationalist.)

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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How to Relieve Your Horse’s Anxiety


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

It's the ordinary excellence of a 
woman and a horse. Ribs expand as hips
surrender to the rolling impulsion,
closing your eyes just long enough to
feel the power in letting go. Canter out.
for L.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Unusual

 

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

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
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Bend… Like a Crescent Moon.

I arrived at the barn mid-fight. The barn manager was refereeing a dust-up between a trainer and a boarder who was not his client. The trainer had tied a horse’s head, snubbed down tight, to its side and left in a stall. The boarder went into the stall and untied the horse. The trainer cried trespassing and the boarder cried cruelty. From over my shoulder, I heard the trainer growl, “Mind your own business!” at the boarder, an unapologetic older woman.

Horses usually like to bend one way better than the other; a soft side and a stiff side. You could think of it kind of like being right-handed, only with horses most are more willing to bend to the left. It means the horse would be weaker on one side which translates to a lack of balance. In other words, the horse is never straight. It’s natural for the horse, but if we want the horse strong and balanced, we work both sides. Ambidextrous is the human version of straight.

I heard an anecdotal reason once, that a horse’s bend preference depends on which direction he was curled in utero. I don’t know if it’s true, but it stuck with me because it reminds me that bend is “natural” and it’s an easy visual to understand.

Bend means a gentle arc from a horse’s nose to his tail. That the inside rib-cage is slightly compressed and the outside rib-cage slightly expanded. Think riding a circle. It’s why one direction is easier than the other.

I have no excuse for this trainer but I know what he thought he was doing. His theory was that tying the horse around means the horse fights with himself, rather than a human. It’s a common misunderstanding, like pulling a horse’s head around to your foot while mounted. They say a rider should work the stiff side twice as much as the soft side, too. Common ideas, but that doesn’t make them right.

The problem is that it gets adversarial quickly. It’s the frustration of egg-shaped circles and wrong leads. We decide the horse is disobedient, so we kick more and pull our inside reins. We drill that stiff side repeatedly, trying to soften it, but our resistance creates even more stiffness. Some of us escalate to a physical fight while others set a hard hand and hold a grudge. And yes, resort to tying his head to his side and leaving. It gets personal.

That’s the disconnect. Remember your mental image of a foal in utero. It’s not disobedience. The horse isn’t resisting you out of defiance. He’s literally stiff. Think of how stiff feels; you would defend a sore shoulder. You’d lose balance and straightness just like they do. Only theirs isn’t an injury or an attitude. They’re born this way. It’s natural.

We kindly want my horse balanced and strong and flexible, but from this standpoint wouldn’t it be smarter to massage them into it and not pick a fight? And lucky us, we have the good use of an inside leg to do it.

Start over with new understanding. Walk a large circle his easy way, probably left. Feel your sit-bones rise and fall with his stride, as your legs lightly follow the sway of his barrel. Begin by taking stock of your rib-cage. Inhale to inflate your lungs. Feel your ribs symmetrical and your shoulders level. If you aren’t sitting straight, your horse can’t balance your weight evenly. As you walk the circle, you have a slight turn to your waist; your right shoulder is slightly back.

Visualize bend like the soft edge of a crescent moon. Bend refers to that sweet outside arc of the horse, so counter-intuitive as it is, forget your inside hand. Drop your eyes for a moment and look at your horse’s withers between your reins. You want to ask your horse to shift his withers toward the outside rein. Think withers. Forget his neck, feel of your inside leg at his girth. Each time his barrel swings to the outside, pulse with your inside calf, gently asking his shoulder to release just a hair at a time. There is no force, just a rhythmic swing. It almost feels like a leg yield out on a circle, but again, that inside leg is relaxed and just cuing once per stride. Slow.

Imagine a line from your inside leg that travels diagonally through the horse to his outside shoulder. Ride that line, ask your horse to step into that outside rein. Your outside rein should work like the rail of the arena, containing and supporting the bend, which you’re remind yourself a million times, refers to the outside arc of the horse, and so, leave the inside rein alone. Foot!

There’s a dressage phrase you might consider tattooing somewhere: Inside foot to outside hand. 

Reverse and walk the other way on the circle. Now you are going his stiff way, but his rhythm is still working, so you continue the process. Be slow and quiet. In the beginning, he’ll be stiff and you’ll imagine that your inside leg is like a heating pad, gently warming as you ask his withers to the outside. Your inside leg pulses just as softly, and the response you get is probably less, but that’s fair for a stiff side. If your horse relaxes his neck longer, that’s huge. Just walk and ask, inside leg to outside rein, for bend, but reward him generously for the smallest effort. Massage him soft, and notice that your inside hand is still not pulling. Be patient. If he isn’t soft at the walk, nothing will improve at the trot and the canter will be worse.

From here continue to change direction frequently. Rather than naming the bad side, reverse so often that you can’t remember which side is which. Then, since you aren’t fighting one side, neither is he. Let both bends flow from one to the other walking serpentines and circles until there is no stiff or soft. Feel his balance and fluidity. Feel that same emotional balance in yourself.

Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason.

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