Trust: A Suspension of Disbelief.

You love horses. No, you really, really love horses. Because they are so amazing. We share videos of blind horses cared for by sighted ones. Ponies who tolerate wild kids and horses fulfilling last wishes of our own elders with gentle kindness. There are brilliant competitors dancing and racehorses running on heart. Trail horses who carry us to peace of mind. And don’t forget mules fighting coyotes. We marvel at their intelligence and courage. Yay, Equines!

Then there’s a moment that happens. The instant when that “magical” horse does some small movement that looks normal, like something your horse does. Or the instant that your horse takes a couple of steps of piaffe for the fun of it. Or your horse does a beautiful liberty movement that you only notice you asked for in hindsight. It’s noticeable. Maybe not identical but so close. The lights and mirrors go black and you have an inkling that your horse could do the same thing that previously looked like magic. And that what looked like magic was just being a horse.

It’s a great moment. The line between magic and normal needs to be blurred. Horses are much more than beasts of burden. At the same time, believing some horses are mythical creatures with magical powers does a disservice to rescue horses and grade horses and most likely, the horse in your own barn.

I think the biggest challenge facing most horses is our own mental limitation on what we think they are capable of understanding. We have an innate us/them mentality. We think that other horses achieve a particular behavior because of some intangible circumstances not available to the average horse and rider. Just not true.

But how much do we actually believe in their intelligence? Their ability to understand what’s going on? How often do we act like they need training for common sense, and in that moment, seek to dumb horses down?

Some of it boils down to a question of trust, but when we think about trusting our horses, it usually involves our physical safety. We trust them to clear a jump, to come back after a gallop; we aspire to trust their responsiveness in some way we call normal.

Say you’re asking for a simple in-hand obstacle like stepping onto a tarp on the ground. If he is standing with his hooves right next to it, do you feel you need to do more to explain, like lead him or cluck to him or teach it as if he’s never seen it? Or do you trust that he recognizes the obvious?

Think of all the practical but lame reminders we give teenagers, like to take a coat along. Of course, they roll their eyes. It’s clear we don’t trust them to come in out of the rain. You can say you’re just being helpful, but the other side of that states a lack of trust that they can manage the basics and that’s a horrible confidence builder. Would teens be different if we trusted they’d figure it out without us belaboring the obvious?

I recently read a brilliant article that said by demonstrating things to kids instead of letting them figure it out, we actually show them that we are capable, and they aren’t. In other words, constantly bailing kids out of their situation creates a kind of learned helplessness –the opposite of our intended goal.

Horses are no different. The chronic habit of humans re-training or over-cueing is a kind of lack of trust in our horse’s intellect.

The idea of allowing a horse autonomy, the freedom to volunteer, requires a suspension of disbelief. It means that you extend trust… not that they won’t hurt you but trust that they are smart and can answer the question. Giving the cue louder doesn’t make it more understandable. It just adds more anxiety. Ask quietly, with confidence in both of you. Then rather than doing the task, give him the time and support to figure it out. You get to pick the topic and he gets to pick the time.

Maybe trust is another word for patience.

If you believe that horses are sentient, then I challenge you to communicate with him that way. Mentor with your body, notice your own energy. Suggest rather than demand. And you know you should be breathing more.

Do your cues take on the urgency and size of semaphore signals on an aircraft carrier? Maybe a little less training enthusiasm and a little more confidence in your own ability and your horse’s desire to align with your intention. Let it be easier.

It’s possible they won’t give us the answer we want immediately. It might be confusion or a lack of confidence but don’t give into doubt. It’s up to us to find a quiet way to ask, or cut the task into smaller pieces and be grateful for every tiny effort. Successive approximation.

In that quiet moment, can you see a small change in his eye? Does his poll soften? In the past you may have thought he was dawdling or resisting the cue, but looking closer now, do see his intelligence? Reward that; connect with the action of him using his mind.

How horses and riders get stuck in the same place for long periods of time is that we don’t hold ourselves to conscious creativity in our equine conversations. We don’t progress because we unconsciously become repetitive naggers instead of scintillating conversationalists. If we believe that horses can read our minds in other situations, why would we have to resort to semaphore cues for something obvious and easy?

Trust your horse can a true partner and not a minion. Let him rise to the occasion and feel pride in himself. Trust his intelligence because his species has survived for thousands of years. Celebrate that intellect as a thing that you both share.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Circles: A Soft Bend

I’d led a sheltered life. I was thirty years old before I visited my first Saddlebred barn. I was just tagging along with a friend, standing flat-footed in the aisle, when I heard a yell, followed by a loud rattling noise. At the far end of an extremely long barn aisle, a tall horse with wide eyes was jangling toward me with a rider up. I backed against a stall as the noise got louder.  He flew past me, knees high and chains clanging in a gait something like a trot.

They pulled up at the other far end of the aisle, awkwardly turned around and clip-clopped a walk back toward us, stilted and sweating. The rider stopped and exchanged greetings with my friend, while I did a squint-eyed stare at the gelding’s long hooves –wedged, weighted, and screwed together with metal strapping.

It was a lot to take in; I must have looked like a gaped-mouth tourist. Back in the truck, I grilled my friend who explained that they sprinted the horses up and down their barn aisles, keeping their horses straight because riding in circles “ruined horses.”

Do you know the good reasons to circle a horse? No extremes, I don’t mean tiny circles at a dead run, but the idea of walking or trotting a large arc? Imagine your horse’s barrel; the inside ribs should compress a bit while the outside ribs stretch. Most of us will say that our horses are stiff one way and this is the peaceful antidote. It’s common sense to want your horse supple and strong.

Here is the secret to riding a circle: Start by visualizing a circle on the ground. Then cut the circle into quarters and ride it one-quarter at a time. It’s a way of staying fresh and mentally in the moment. If you want, count the steps in each quarter. Let the strides stay regular and keep your shoulders at the angle you want your horse’s shoulder to be.

Warning: the more you think you need to steer with reins, the more “creative” your circle will be. Sometimes from the ground, I feel a need to clarify by saying round circle as a reminder.

Yes, horses have a stiff side in the beginning but the more you pull that side to make them bend, the more things come apart; shoulders dropping in all directions, over-correcting with reins, tense eyebrows and set jaws on riders, and confused ears on your horse. Scratch his withers for tolerating you.

Start again, care more about the track you see on the ground than the bend of your horse’s neck. Ride that track. Sit squarely in the saddle and turn your waist, shoulders to the arc of the circle, one-quarter at a time. Ride with an energetic seat and legs, remember? And breathe. If that doesn’t help your circle, don’t be shy. Put some cones out. This is important for your horse.

Inside leg to outside rein. 

It’s an imaginary interior line from your horse’s armpit (where your foot is) to his outside shoulder. Ignore his head for now. Every time his barrel sways to the outside, your calf will pulse lightly. No, lightly! Let it feel like a dancing cheek to cheek. The concept of bend must be in the ribs, meaning the whole body, as opposed to cranking his neck to the side.

Keep pulsing along at the walk and look down. If you are going his soft way, usually to the left, you will notice your inside rein slack as he softens to your gentle inside calf muscle. You want to see his withers being gently and rhythmically massaged to the outside of the circle. You want that outside arc of his body as sweet as a crescent moon, as soft as a peach.

After a while, reverse direction. He might counter bend a bit. Keep the inside leg massaging away but lower your expectations. It takes a good while; you can’t make muscles release. Let your horse do that part. Remind yourself that a counter-bend isn’t a disobedience; it’s literally an under-developed muscle; his withers need time. Horses are born this way and if you create more resistance while asking him to bend his stiff way, that does defeat the purpose. Think long neck. Think of him stretching nose to tail. Pass the time breathing.

Remind yourself that curving or walking in an arc is a calming signal for a reason. This flexing of the horse’s ribcage relaxes them. Wait for him to tell you it’s working. He might blow out a snort, or lick and chew. Maybe his neck will get longer, maybe his stride will improve, his inside leg energized by your inside pulsing calf. These are all right answers. Say, Good Boy.

Once the circles are good, try a spiral. Start with a 20-meter circle, carve it smaller with your outside leg pulsing (in rhythm as his barrel swings to the inside to move smaller) as you turn your waist a bit more, to a 15-meter circle, and adding energy to your sit bones, even smaller to a 10-meter circle. Once there, use your inside leg to gradually move out to 20-meters again.

To begin just do a smaller circle inside of a larger one. Let this spiral have a chance to blossom as your horse gets more supple. If you are on the trail, plan a path using huge half-circle arcs instead of straight lines. Ride with your legs. Ask for slow, long strides, giving your horse time to step under. Stay mentally engaged; ride with energy and practice your own internal focus by feeling each step. Know that he is gaining strength from the inside out. Be patient. Think of coiling the spring, think T’ai Chi for horses.

If you find circles boring, reconsider. We don’t ride them to please judges. There’s a much better reason than that: Supple Bend Equals Longevity.

Is there a better reason?

….

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Making War on Horses: Is it Leadership?

By reader request:

“Horses need a dominant leader; you have to make him respect you.” “You can’t let him get away with that.” “Kick him; make him do it right now or you’ll ruin him forever.” “He’s making a fool out of you –show him who’s boss.” “You can’t let him win!” Oh yes, and this one: “I break young horses.”

A few weeks ago, a client said something that stopped me in my tracks. We’d been working on re-habbing her new gelding who had nothing short of PTSD. Over the weeks, he was slowly beginning to trust again. She reflected, “He had a trainer like I had a father.”

In a blink, I was fifteen, standing under a tree with my father, who was spitting mad at me. My filly was nervous about pavement and he thought I’d been too slow coaxing her to step on it. Now it was his turn and he was going to teach her to tie. He snubbed her to the tree, spooked her to sit back, and then hit her on the back of her skull with a two by four. I can still see her quivering, trying to stay on her feet.

These were common training practices in our area, for horses and kids. He just followed tradition. My grandfather was a horse trader and a hard taskmaster. My father grew up working horses and farming with teams of mules who (he said) wouldn’t work if you didn’t beat them. And me, his daughter-when-he-wanted-a-son, might have been the first one in the family to love horses. Imagine his disappointment.

Truth: Not only do you not have to win every fight; it isn’t even a war.

An over-simplified history of humans and horses: Once upon a time there was a culture who saw the world in terms of art and music. Xenophon, a 430 B.C. Greek soldier/philosopher said, “For what the horse does under compulsion … is done without understanding and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.” At the same time, the other dominant culture was warlike. The Romans drugged their horses and rode them into battle.

Nothing has changed. 

We’ve always had these two approaches to training horses, raising kids, and generally doing business. It can feel oppositional; men against women, old against young, science-based against self-taught, and since being called a “tree hugger,” it even feels political.

The most common thing I hear from riders about positive training isn’t that it works, although it does. Most riders say they were taught harsh habits but it never felt right. That being aggressive with horses was never comfortable but it was required by others. I can understand that. Standing against my father was tough.

Years ago, I read a scientific paper that described the physical reasons for why a horse can’t learn when he’s afraid. I held it as sacred proof and quoted it to prove my point about training with kindness.

But that was before a few years of working with various rescue horses, and horses who had been flunked out by other trainers, and the saddest, brilliant young horses who got pushed too fast. Horses who have struggled with violent leadership will be the first to tell you that they learn plenty when they’re afraid. But none of it good.

It makes sense; lots of us have tolerated harsh criticism from family for decades. Some of us rebel and never show the “respect” demanded of us. Some of us just shut down, our dreams broken and our self-worth destroyed. Just like horses.

Compassionate training can get some catcalls. I’ve certainly been criticized for training like a girl. There is that sour feeling that hangs in the air implying that we are cowards. That we just don’t have the guts to break a horse. We’re too weak to win the fight with a horse and too scared to even take the bait to fight the human taunting you. That this touchy-feely training is trash that goes against herd dominance theory.

The worst? I saw a video of a rider on her young horse. She was trying mounted shooting and her horse was confused and extremely frightened. Her “friends” cheered her on, urging her to fight him through it. The rider kept kicking, jerking the reins, and shooting her gun. The more confused her horse was, the more they yelled to encourage her to keep after him. It felt like a death-fight at a Roman Colosseum.

Readers also ask me how to deal with rail-birds who tell them they aren’t tough enough on their horses. It’s a good question. How do you defend compassion in the face of criticism? Why is there so much peer pressure to dominate horses? Do the intimidation tactics that they use on their horses work on you, too?

I notice it’s as hard to stand up to bullying as it ever was.

Start here: The FBI raised animal cruelty up to a Class A felony, with murder and arson. Pause. Think about that. It isn’t that the FBI thinks kittens and foals are cute. Statistics show a majority of violent crime begins with animal abuse.

After my father passed, my mother confided that she was always afraid that he might seriously hurt one of us kids. It almost felt good to have our family tradition acknowledged.

This might not be what you expected to hear about the “you can’t let him win” philosophy. It’s a topic that I take very seriously. I’ve certainly seen humans declare war, claim dominance using weapons –sticks, whips, and spurs. Only to run horses in circles until they shut down or cripple themselves. And if cruelty was limited to barns, as much as I love horses, I’d be happy with that. But it’s a topic that reflects more about who we are than we like to admit.

Humans are born predators. We make war but we are also capable of great acts of heart. How we deal with horses, dogs, and even children give us a chance to ask ourselves the hard questions.

Are horses who we really hate? Why is it so important for us to label each other victors or victims? Is it possible for our intellect and heart to rise above our predator instinct?

I’m not saying that how we train horses will bring about world peace. It’s just one place to start.

 ….
Solstice in Scotland: We’re in process of planning a series of clinics in June 2018. If you would like to host a clinic or attend a clinic, please contact me here.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Escape the Death Spiral: Asking For a Step.

Let me begin by defining a death spiral. It’s asking a horse to do something he just avoided, by circling around and asking again. It could be as simple as trying to move your horse a letter on an arena rail. Or repeat an attempted transition to another gait. Or do an obstacle from the ground. Or ask a horse to step into a trailer.

He avoided it, so you circle, pushing him right back. But then you give the outside rein (or lead rope) a hard pull for good measure. It’s asking a little louder and a little faster the second time, hoping that you can push him through, but he braces his ribs in response to your sharp heel, planted and pressing, not all that far from his kidneys. His hind end skitters to the side.

Now your brain is running like a rat on a wheel, it’s personal, so you circle him one more time pulling your inside rein to the exact degree that he is pulling to the outside, with your seat planted and both legs kicking up a frenzy, along with a tap of the whip. And did I mention you are pulling on the reins during your kicking fit? You’re just trying to get him straight, but he has so much tension and resistance from your conflicting cues that now that he can’t take a step.

Wait, I forgot the most important part. What makes it a death spiral isn’t the circle or his refusal. It’s you. It’s your nagging request that gets louder and bigger and faster and never stops. It’s the overlapping use of flailing cues that become a rant that accelerates and obliterates your connection with your horse, as if the goal or obstacle is a matter of life or death.

The worst part: You might not have noticed that you cued this pig-fight but you are the one having a runaway. Not your horse. Stop. Consider yourself in detention. Let your horse breathe.

“If the inside of a person is bothered, it’s for sure that the outside of a horse is going to show it.” -Tom Dorrance

First, you didn’t create the circling back idea and you don’t get all the blame. It’s somehow become common knowledge in riding. Forget it. It’s a lousy tactic unless it’s your goal to fry your horse’s brain.

One calm circle-back might do the trick, but just one. More than that and the circle-back, intended as a way of correcting an evasion, becomes a way for the horse to evade the war of cues, now bigger than the original task ever was. It trains some horses to frantically circle when they get confused. It becomes a hysterical calming signal intended for you; he’s forgotten the obstacle and is evading your over-cueing now. You’ve changed the subject from the original question to letting him know that you’re a scary, warlike leader.

Some horses won’t go forward at all, preferring to stand and brace for the punishment to come. It can feel like disobedience, but a horse shutting down is a calming signal. It’s your horse saying, “I’m no threat to you; you don’t have to yell.”

Meanwhile, you’re still in detention. Take stock in this hindsight moment. Can you tell when your ego kicked in? Can you tell when you went from creating safety and security for your horse to starting a war that you had to win? It’s a good question. The line between these extremes is small, especially once you’ve stopped breathing.

The other side of that line is anxiety. Humans and horses both respond to anxiety the exact same way. We speed up. Then that speed makes us speed up some more.

Most of the time we throw our horses at something scary, pummel them with cues, and yell, “Brace yourself, Baby!” To be abundantly clear, that’s why you’re in detention.

Back to the beginning. Horses need a moment to think. It doesn’t mean they’re refusing. Have a little faith. Ask politely.

You may only ask for one thing at a time. Then you wait for an answer. Count to ten, more than once if you need to. It will feel way too slow but that’s because you’re used to cueing runaways. After he answers, reward him. If the answer was not the one you wanted, then re-phrase the question. Not louder. Not quicker. Ask for something simple that you can both agree on. Cut the task into tiny bite-sized pieces.

Ask for one step. Reward him, pause, and ask for another. Go slow and don’t interrupt the conversation. Mounted or on the ground, do you and your horse have this skill? Walk, halt, walk? You won’t need your hands for this. He should listen to your seat if you’re riding and your feet if you’re on the ground. This is fundamental; you should be asking for halts and walk-offs in your warm-up.

Taking one step at a time toward an obstacle, pausing, and rewarding each try, will get the job done in a fraction of the time that jerking and kicking your horse in circles takes. The result will be fewer ulcers and greater partnership.

In dressage, we are constantly returning to the fundamentals and refining them. They are the foundation of good riding and when trained with patience and reward, horses count on the connection and comfort found in these simple conversations. Isn’t this the place to learn the finesse to ask more complicated questions? Isn’t that the confidence you want to take forward to bigger challenges?

It always seems like we ask for too much or too little. We’re too loud and our horse is reactive. We are too confusing and our horse is shut down. It can feel frustrating when you are trying to do right, but sorry, what you think doesn’t matter. It’s just you talking to yourself.

Talk to your horse instead. Use your body to give clear cues. Practice them in calm situations. Celebrate fundamental connection but more than that, commit yourself to being a leader who never gives up that profound connection with her horse in favor of a silly external distraction. Like a letter on an arena rail or a horse trailer.

Lead with peaceful persistence: Not aggressive. Not conceding. Not emotional.

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