Horses: Technique and Art

“Shut Up and Dance”

It was written on one of those little tin lapel pins and my friend wore it when we went to bars back in the day. It was like a rebel yell of a Zen mantra; we’d dance with men or women or dogs. It was a rambunctious celebration of being young and alive. We frolicked like colts cantering about a field, snorting and kicking up our hooves. Free.

Then life happened. We got distracted by family and careers. We bought calendars and scribbled appointments and noticed the sound of our parent’s voices coming out of our mouths. We learned the attraction of a slow dance because we were hurried all the time.

Before that, if we’d had the wild luck to have a horse, we’d climb on and if we wanted to go to the woods, but the horse wanted to go to that patch of tall grass behind the barn, there was no problem. We went to that patch of tall grass behind the barn.

Horses taught us to be spontaneous, but our new-found maturity, we decided we needed to steer our horses, control their heads, make them do a task. As soon as that happened, we started missing the way it used to be with horses when we were kids.

As the magic escaped us, we searched for what we lost. We asked for help from a neighbor or a local trainer. In my case, I got a book from the library because it was before the time of the Computasaurus.

Some of us found videos put out by trainers who were smart enough to see a need in the market. Technique got seasoned with the sweetness of financial gain… for the trainer. We were desperate to do better for our horses, who had about lost patience with us by now. Which means we had about lost patience with techniques.

We tried our best to find someone who knew the path back to how it was but there isn’t a trainer in the world who holds his hand up and declares, “I train with cruelty and abuse.” Still, some do. Each trainer had a different definition of leadership, along with various techniques for picking up feet, doing canter departs, and everything else. Some work and some don’t.

Disclaimer: Horse people are very opinionated, and everyone is certain their way is absolutely right. This includes me.

We got good advice and we got bad advice, but then we layered that with conflicting advice, and finally on top of that, what worked for your horse one day, probably didn’t work on another day. So we ended up with lots of techniques vying for dominance in our minds, and we got more involved with our thoughts than our horses.

Horses keep telling us that they are individuals and we keep trying to squeeze them into a succession of one-size-fits-all training plans that never quite fit.

Some of the horses didn’t show us much tolerance as we flounder with a new technique. They gave us calming signals because we were abrupt or gave cues louder than we intended. Or we didn’t really understand the new technique, so our confidence was a bit frail and the horses responded to that with confusion. Eventually, tired frustration made it feel like nothing worked but aggression, and that only worked if you kept escalating. Like a rat on a wheel, driven by compulsion and not inspiration.

A plague of doubt. And it doesn’t matter if it started with your horse or you. It was contagious.

The secret no one seems to mention is the technique, regardless of whose technique it is, will never be enough. A technique is a noun, a thing like a skeleton or a box. It’s dry science until we clothe it with creativity, make it our own, and then allow our horses to discover it for themselves. A technique is hollow until each rider breathes their unique life into it and then introduces it to their unique horse.

It’s a catch-22: The technique won’t work unless we are inspired by it but it’s hard to be inspired by a flat technique.

The answer is that we have to embrace the art of training. We must believe in the what if. We might need to show our horses more confidence than we have in the beginning.

Shakespeare, the bard of theater, said, “Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” It’s a much more poetic way of saying fake it, till you make it, but your horse is reading you right back as you read him. Can you be interesting and mysterious?

Put your doubt on a shelf and let the play begin. Let your serious goals for training take back seat to spontaneity. Lighten up with the science, horses like recess more than books. You were once that way, too, remember? Laugh at yourself. Let him see you try and if you stumble, laugh more. Show him it’s more fun to try than to stand back and doubt.

Success depends on not how well you mimic the particular technique you are using, but instead, how well you listen to your horse and engage him in the moment.

Technique is necessary and good. Then, shut up and dance.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 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. 

 

 

 

Repetition Vs. Consistency

There’s a moment, sometimes at the beginning of a lesson or during a clinic, where I meet a horse for the first time. I might ask him a question, a simple thing like taking a step back and I might ask him with my feet. The horse isn’t sure what I’m asking so he’s thinking about it.

Meanwhile, his rider is anxious for him to do well, so she tells me how she cues him and sometimes steps in to demonstrate it. Meanwhile, the thinking horse becomes what we see as an obedient horse. He goes back to habit along with his rider.

There is a comfort for both horse and rider in familiarity. It is a cue that they have drilled; a known answer exchanged between partners. Like starting church with a hymn or a ball game with the national anthem. It has a comfort we all understand.

In the beginning, training is repetition. We ask for something, the horse tries a few things, and gets a release when he finds the right answer. We cue him, he steps back, and the cue stops. He learns in hindsight and then gives us the right answer when we ask because he likes it when the cue stops. Simple success.

The problem is that we want more. More cues, more obedience, more good feelings. Most horses oblige to a point. Then we want bigger progress and get frustrated when he doesn’t keep up. A cue that makes sense to you leaves him blank. Or something changes; the routine gets altered and the two of you lose rhythm. Or the horse is distracted when we ask and we startle him with a correction. Somehow, things come apart. Because they always do.

Or you might want to change things in your training for the very best reason. Maybe you are aware of how hard your horse tries. Aware that he gives you the benefit of the doubt at times you might not entirely deserve it. You see past the surface of obedience, recognize his intelligence, and decide you need to do better because you want to match his kindness. He has inspired you; wonderful.

The two primary training principles that seem to carry across disciplines are these: You must be consistent. You must change things up.  This is why so many longtime novice riders get stuck. It’s a crazy contradiction so our behaviors go nuts to match.

Repetition isn’t a bad thing unless we repeat it too much. But that’s kind of how humans do things, left to our own instinct. We turn the key in the ignition switch, happy that the engine roars. Gas. Brakes. Gas. Brakes. We love that control. It’s too bad it doesn’t work the same way in a saddle.

One of the ways that learning and understanding sinks deeper, allowing for breakthrough work with horses, is by re-defining old words and taking that new awareness into the present moment. We might evolve from wanting an obedient horse who answers by rote to wanting an engaged horse who is answering spontaneously. The secret to improving your riding is to give up some desire for control to encourage your horse to be more curious and willing to take a guess. It’s the kind of counter-intuitive idea that feels just like a stone in your boot.

Riding more often, repetition, doesn’t make a horse better. If that was true, those old sainted lesson ponies would be in the Olympics.

Consider evolving the definition of a new word: Consistency. Being consistent is more than scheduling rides a certain number of times a week. It’s altering the quality of those rides. It’s being aware of each cue, even the ones you didn’t mean to give. As a rider lifts her awareness, it means that engaging his mind becomes more important than giving the stock answer. It’s the act of having a conversation of cues rather than a command to be obeyed. The challenge for a rider is to keep a horse interested in the conversation; it takes mental focus. We must stay engaged in each stride if we hope to have a responsive horse.

It can start as simply as asking for longer strides in the walk. Do it with a subtle cue, using just your sit bones in the saddle. If you feel a tiny difference in his stride, good, reward him with an exhale. Then return to his working walk and in a few strides, as for some shorter strides, again just with sit bones. Feel his response. He’s right there, connected in each stride. That part was almost easy.

Eventually, the canter. Instead of a jerk-and-kick canter depart, breathe and relax yourself at the trot. Be still, keep your shoulders back, and feel the landing of each stride. Allow him to stay relaxed and cue in rhythm with his movement, so he can make that transition with balance. Keep your energy in check; you’re asking for a change of gait, not a change of speed. Give him time to understand the difference and reward his effort to understand. Let the canter depart have the steady confidence of a jet plane on the runway.

Prepare for the day when you think the cue, allowing subtle changes in your body, and letting time slow down. You feel a lift in his supple shoulders, his neck is long and soft. His head is on the vertical, not because you are pulling on the reins, but because when he is forward and relaxed, and that’s his natural head position. On your inhale, he lifts you to a swinging rhythm, your body follows as he glides over the earth. It’s a canter that feels like more air than ground. It feels like being weightless and powerful; the peace inside the eye of a hurricane.

Consistency isn’t about drilling the same question, judging right and wrong, punishing or rewarding. Consistency is an ever-evolving mentality that stays present with energy and an openness. It’s rewarding his curiosity with your creativity; a witty repartee of cues and releases that feels like laughter between equals. It’s knowing that he’ll give the best answer if you focus on asking the question in the best way.

Trust, first defined as not being afraid of falling, grows into the confidence to fly. Consistency is a rider working toward being the best they can be, allowing their horse to do the same.

Horses reward us for our uplifted consistency, usually with something a little sweeter than what we expect. Generosity.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 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. 

Your Horse Loves Arena Riding

Does your horse have a Night of the Living Dead lurch to the arena? Do you clock in like it’s a factory job? Is there a rut on the rail, and is it you?

Worst of all, is the arena a cell without windows where he gets corrected and controlled? Is it the kind of place where being gate sour, just wanting out, is common sense?

People tell me that their horse doesn’t like the arena and it’s obvious why. If your riding involves arena time, the first priority is to make it a place your horse wants to be. What if, instead of a horse being barn sour, he was arena sour. What if he pulled toward the arena because that’s where all the good things happen?

I learned a new word this week. It’s the German term funktionslust. Try to pronounce it; it’s juicy. It refers to the pleasure taken in doing what one does best. It’s birds flying, dogs playing ball. It speaks of a horse taking thunderous flight, feeling the glory in his physical body. Shouldn’t funktionslust be the sign on the arena gate?

For horses, living in the moment means what their body feels. Our words will never matter as much as his physical state. He doesn’t care what you think about horse slaughter or nutritional supplements or Nuno Oliveira. Right now, is his neck short, is his back is tense, is his movement is restricted?

A riding arena should be a blank slate, not intrinsically good or bad. Not the scene of a competition or a cool beach at sunset. We can create the arena as a playground, a dance studio, or a torture chamber. We can spend time trying to heal our horse’s attitudes about the arena by hacking on long trails, or we can make the arena a place they don’t need therapy to recover from in the first place.

Start here: all great rides begin with a curry. I don’t care if you ever use a brush for grooming, but the curry is a thing of magic. As you move over every inch of his body with energy and focus, feel your own body. It’s your primary tool for communication. Let the circling of the curry on his rump, soften your shoulders. Roll your neck as you curry his poll. Shifting weight from one leg to another, relax your own hips. Stretch your back as you bend to pick his hooves. Curry your horse until you lick and chew.

At the same time, make a plan for your ride. Vow to be happy in the saddle, lightly eloquent with your cues. Think about your own energy and don’t expect more from your horse than you are willing to put out. Have a plan because horses read that focus as confidence. Then be aware that you’ll stick to the plan 11-13% percent of the time. Laugh about it, out loud so he can hear you.

Head to the arena with a long step. Communicate through your body, let your feet be forward but don’t you dare pull on the lead. It’s the cue to him that you’ll be pulling on the reins later.

He doesn’t have to go to work right away. If you are taking the halter off and bridling there, spend too much time in between. Let him look. If you have friends riding when you get there, say hello to them but then ignore them and focus on your horse.

Are you a perfectionist? Call a moratorium on any of your behaviors that might fit in well in a 1950s Catholic girls’ school. Are you the silent, brooding type? Lift your energy. Smile. Show some teeth. Be interesting.

Start slow. Take a stroll with your horse on the ground. No hands, pay attention to your feet. Breathe. Walk big arcs. If you lunge before you ride, let him play in the beginning. If he lets out a buck, cheer for it. Let him shake it all out before you begin to ask for transitions.

When you get to the mounting block, have a scratch fest. Mount up and breathe. This is the dance. Breathe some more. If you are a longtime novice rider, you’ve been taught to sit still and be quiet in the saddle. If you’re timid, you might be unnaturally quiet. If you don’t have a plan, your horse is bored already. So right now, lift your own energy. Feel the funktionslust in your own body. Riders ride! It’s you, doing what you love. Cheer up, for crying out loud.

Walk on.  Crank up the music. Focus, go to work with energy. You’ll need discipline to keep your own energy high, to allow the freedom of movement your horse needs to find his balance and feel strong.

Do not punish your horse in the arena. Punishment destroys trust and if it happens every time he goes to the arena, it’s like returning to the scene of the crime. If your horse already has a history of being punished in the arena, it’ll be obvious. Let him know he has all the time he needs.

Go to work with purpose, forward and relaxed. Let him feel his body strong. Sometimes do it his way. Find a fair challenge because it keeps the conversation interesting. Know that he’s giving you what you asked for and adjust yourself accordingly.

Sometimes take an arena trail ride. Drop the reins and don’t care where you go. Sometimes when you are on the trail, do a spiraling exercise or practice light transitions. In the end, riding is just riding. Never location. It’s about a conversation between friends.

Finish the ride a long rein. Energy high, striding out. Halt and take a load off. Your horse, of course. No lingering, being the cool kid on a horse. Don’t make him hold you when he can’t mitigate the weight by moving.

Step a few feet away and give him a full release. Wait for him to take it. Wait for the yawn, the neck shake. No need to rush, let the arena be a sanctuary; the place you congratulate each other on your obvious brilliance. Let your voice be low and soft, with a hint of a nicker.

…Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK.
2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you wou

Middle Path: The Curse of a Self-Aware Mind

We think too much. We’re mostly introverts with an inclination toward perfection, and we think too much. Oh, and we like to ride horses.

Example: You’re riding a young horse who is a little quick. You’re with your trainer at your first dressage show. You enter the arena, salute the judge, and begin the test. It’s great, the new jacket fits well. You begin the trot work. You know people are watching you but you don’t smile. These are full-seat white britches, you’ve managed to keep them relatively clean, but they don’t give much in the saddle. Not that you’ve had them in the saddle before. Actually, they kind of suspend you above the sadd…. oops. “Are we going really fast? I think we’re going really fast.”

At this point, you look for your trainer on the sideline and she has a furrowed brow. “Okay, he’s quick. Let me see. I could half-halt. I don’t need a one rein stop, do I? No, not that. I don’t want to pull the reins in front of the judge. Oh. I think I might be pulling the reins already. Crap. I think he’s pulling back on them, too. Oh, my. Is that slapping sound my backside hitting the saddle? Half-halt, do you think?”

You survive, it’s ugly but you’re feeling good about staying on when you leave the arena. Your trainer asks you, through a very tense jaw, “Your horse was running away with you. Couldn’t you tell your horse was running away?” “Um. Of course,” you answer, “I just couldn’t decide what to do.” And you give your trainer the second deer-in-headlights look of the day.

Meanwhile, your young horse, who lives in the moment, is thinking about noises he hears over by the Porta-Potty.

First, a simple explanation of the difference between us and non-human animals, like horses. Scientists agree that horses have consciousness, defined as being aware of their own body and the surrounding environment. They think. Humans have self-awareness, generally defined as consciousness, as well as the awareness of our existence. We think, and then we think about our thoughts. 

This is why humans are considered more evolved but sometimes I wonder. Our senses are not as acute as horses; they hear and smell and see more. Meaning horses live in the moment. We use our brains to override our senses, so we can doubt that horses sense what they sense and then think about our feelings about that.

Humans have an added dimension; we can read the philosophy of classical horsemanship. Shop online for tack. Get sold methods of training, explained in deceptive terms, that may be popular but don’t actually work on horses. Spend hours on DreamHorse. Be groupies for previously mentioned training methods, proselytizing to others about the need to punish horses. Think about obscure breeds we’d like to own. Consider different bits to gain more control of our horses. Have a big heart for horse rescue. Plan a trip to Spain.

If humans were on an inter-species dating site, they would not link us up with horses. We’re a bad match, but we aren’t quitters. 

It’s important to understand these fundamental differences. If humans want relationships with horses, we must approach it in a non-human way. We need to study technique, but when we’re riding, lay down our over-analyzing minds.

Less thought, more feel. In the example at the beginning, the rider stopped breathing, her legs grabbed on, the cue to go faster. Her body got tense, and her horse got scared. Her response was to think more thoughts. She was so busy having a conversation with herself that she abandoned her horse. It isn’t a mistake, it’s our instinct.

To be partners, we have to quiet our natural instinct, just like horses have to quiet some of theirs. It’s why riding well is an art.

Where to begin? Horses live by physical awareness, so first, let your intellectual mind rest. Just feel. Take a deep breath. Did it catch in your throat? Did your shoulders poke up around your ears? Take another breath. Feel it expand your belly. Count to three on the inhale. Hold a count and exhale in three. Continue. Breathe into your knees and let them loosen. Tell your critical voice to breathe with you, but hold her tongue. Do this all day long. Feels good, doesn’t it?

When you are breathing deep and soft to your belly, go to the barn and look at your horse’s flank. That’s how he breathes when he’s relaxed, too. About now your brain kicks in with some bright shiny mental distraction. Smile, because it relaxes part of your head. Breathe and smile, stay with your horse. Create a bubble for the two of you to breathe in together.

Try this experiment: Communicate by using the body parts that both you and your horse share. So, no voice and no hands. Become aware of your feet. Become aware of… (I know you’re judging yourself. Just stop.) …your senses. Breathe deep and slow. Notice your hands and keep them to yourself again. Give him space to feel confident in; stand square and tall and away. Let him tell you something you don’t know. Without interrupting him to make him hurry. Without interrupting yourself with chatter. Takes self-discipline, doesn’t it?

In the saddle, warm up on a long rein. Feel your sit bones and note the length of his stride. Now listen to a song or count your breath. In about five minutes, feel the difference in your back and in his stride. Limit yourself to feeling. Don’t fix it, just feel it. Go through each of your body parts and introduce yourself. Is your neck tight? Give it a roll and breathe. Notice your horse’s poll release but don’t talk about it. Feel your elbows and wrists.

Experience your horse, body to body.  There is no cleaner or more immediate way to communicate with a horse. Practice acceptance in that exact moment; that’s where connection starts.

After you put your horse up, find a horse-friend. Talk to for hours about your ride. Tell her you fell in love all over again.

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

 

 

Photo Challenge and Poem: Ascend

Riding looks as easy as sliding
a boot into a stirrup and throwing
a leg over the horse's back. As
simple as kick 'em and they go.
The horse is a creature of habit
and tolerance. It's ride enough. 

But if the human rattle and bang
of expectation will go quiet, there
is a flash, in the space of time
between a foot letting lose of the
earth and a seat settling in the 
saddle, joining spines with a horse. 
 
In that vulnerable second, you might
glimpse an ageless intellect; have
an intuition that the inside of a 
horse has a terrain of its own.
Pause there at the edge. Understand 
sovereignty. A horse is beyond our 

control in this physical world but
there is a quiet place where entrance
is gained by invitation. No need to 
call out, he knows you're there. Clean
yourself up, tidy those emotions. When 
you're ready, he'll bring you inside. 

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon  
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Seriously Lighthearted

Do you ever get the impression that your show up at the barn and your horse is watching you with an expression of “who are you today?

Most of us have a few different personas. There’s the one for work; you watch your language there. The one for your oldest friend from high school; she’s the arbiter of honesty.  There is a “first” persona, for first dates, job interviews, and meeting strangers formally. We’re usually tense and shiny then, from trying too hard while simultaneously hoping to appear totally natural. Whew.

It isn’t that we’re being dishonest, we’re just choosing a version of ourselves for a particular situation. Some of it is following a set of rules that we imagine is required. It’s being professional or respectful or nervous. It’s being witty and conversational when you’re an introvert and you’d rather be mucking the barn.

And sure. Some of us create personas that are dishonest.

We have barn personas, too. Some of us put our horses in our old friend category; we can be whoever we want around them. Some of us want to do the right thing so badly that we show up like a Teacher’s pet, reciting rules precisely, wondering if there’s a horse making faces behind us.  Some of us pick a persona of a little girl around horses, giggling or swooning.

And some of us were taught that horses need a dominant leader, so we train with bravado, like Furiosa, from Mad Max: Fury Road. (I just loved her make-up. Didn’t you?)

Truth #1: You can be whoever you want at the barn. It’s all good as long as you don’t ever complain about anything your horse does. Ever.

Truth #2: You’re not fooling anyone. Not your trainer or friends. Least of all, your horse. And if you have a mare, she knows the truth about you that day, before you get up in the morning.

Now shift perspective. Pretend it isn’t all about us. See it from your horse’s side.

Say you treat your horse like an old friend. You come late, you’re in a hurry. You dump your day, share joy or anger or frustration. How does he feel about that? A stoic horse shuts down from the emotion. Horses don’t hear pronouns; your stress is now theirs. Stress abides and soon he gives calming signals about his stress. It’s okay. We’ve been using horses this way forever, but you have to wonder, do I want to give my horse (or my oldest friend) my best self or leftovers?

Are you a little Type A? Just to save time, raise your hand if you aren’t. I’m not sure why perfectionists are drawn to horses but we are. We nit-pick, micro-manage, and fall short of our own ridiculous standards. We create a crust of self-loathing. Horses experience it as never being right. Not you, them. They never feel good enough, like everything they do is partly wrong. Sound familiar? Horses lose confidence. It kills their try and eventually their souls, but we might think they look like push-button horses. (Mares, not so much.)

Are you a little girl in the barn? Okay. Your horse can babysit you.

This last one is touchy. Do you arrive at the mounting block in domination mode? It’s the most complex barn persona because it’s how most of us were taught. Be the boss and demand respect through fear. It’s also the one most riders I work with tell me is the one they hate the most.

(If I had a nickel for every rider who’s told me she gets a lump in her stomach, that it just doesn’t feel right, to assert harsh leadership, well, I’d have twenty more retired horses in my barn.)

What does a horse think about the dominant persona? As prey animals, they will submit in fear to a predator. Flight is the first response, but you can fight through that to submission. And since horses don’t have social media, they don’t know the #metoo hashtag. But fair warning; some mares never get the hang of submission.

What do horses think about personas in general? I think we confuse them with the gap between who we are deep down and this surface behavior that can mean so many things. And more so if we change personas frequently. We confuse horses with our incongruency.

Domination seems to work because horses may be hard to fool, but are fairly easy to intimidate. That kind of training won’t make a horse trustworthy, and not surprisingly, that’s how they see us. Untrustworthy. There is no trust in domination, on either side. No wonder some riders get a lump in their stomach.

You don’t need to change a thing. I’m just suggesting you notice the role your particular persona plays for your horse. If you have the perfect partnership, wonderful.

If you think it might be time for a persona upgrade, that you are serious about wanting more and better with your horse, then consider being seriously positive.

Demonstrate the persona change you’d like to see in your horse. Be seriously relaxed in your own body, soft shoulders and soft belly. Most of all, a soft jaw. The easiest way is to breathe, smile, and say “good” every chance you get.

Be seriously patient and your horse will offer his heart. Be seriously grateful and it will change your own heart. Most of all, be seriously lighthearted because horses like us that way.

Horses want honesty. They can tell when we pretend to be someone we’re not. The more I’m around horses, the more they show me it’s our true intention that matters most. Horses blossom when we become the best version of ourselves.

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

Big Dreams, Low Expectations

I’ve become a real party-pooper when it comes to talented young horses.

It isn’t that I can’t see the potential; that my heart doesn’t catch in my throat at that fresh brilliance. The beauty of a young sound body, a quick mind, and that total possibility. I know what it feels like to train a horse who catches on fast and offers more than you ask. A horse who seems to not want to stop; who’s curious and willing. A horse who really tries to please, so you get caught up in the thrill of progressing quickly. You’re sure he’s a prodigy, that he will be the exception to every rule.

Horsepeople are dreamers. Even the old-timers. Even when we know better.

So, you or your trainer ride him every day. You haul him a few times a month, he’ll get used to being alone in the trailer. Sometimes you ride twice a day. You know there are abusive trainers who push young horses too fast, but that’s not you. Besides, he says yes. He asks for it.

I’m going to make a painful comparison now. Doesn’t this sound like something they used to say about young girls who dress up on a lark and try to pass for eighteen?

I became a party-pooper about young horses from working with mid-life horses in trouble.

Standing next to them, it’s easy to imagine them younger. Looking at his eye now, you know he wasn’t born this way. That there was a time when he reached out as much as he is tucked inside now. That he was the kind who once gave his body and his heart but has lost the trust to let you stand at his flank. Looking at his stiff body, you can still get a sense of how brilliant his trot used to be. His poll tenses nervously if a human is within ten feet. You don’t have to be a professional to see that his face has been ridden hard. His face, that once reached out with curiosity and courage.

The problem with young horses who are over-achievers is that we humans take this period of youthful grace as who they are. We get attached to brilliance and label it their base level work. On a day when he loses confidence, a day when that young horse goes more like a normal, slightly resistant horse, we think they are guilty of a list of failings and we start the fight. Our change is imperceptible at first. Our dream of them is bruised so we lose just a bit of faith.

Maybe some harsher aids will get his brilliance back.

NO! If that previous sentence doesn’t make your teeth scream, you’re doing it wrong. Not sorry for my bluntness. I’ve been around horses enough that when I see that broken horse, it’s easy to imagine who he once was. The flip-side is that it’s also easy to see the perfect youngster, possibly broken by eight or ten.

To be clear, I’m not talking ambitious trainers starting long yearlings to sell before they’re four-year-olds, fast and dirty and half-lame. I’m talking about people who love their horses and are enthusiastic about good care and training. It’s easy to get caught up in the thrill when things start out so strong.

But young horses start to question training at a certain point. It’s normal, not a betrayal or a rebellion. You should see it as a sign of intelligence. The question we ask isn’t if our horse will hit a bad stretch in work, but what will I do when he inevitably does?

Because all training, even positive training, carries some stress. Just like living in a herd has stress. Normal stress is caused by being alive.

And it isn’t just young horses. You might be re-training a rescue horse or even just beginning with a new-to-you horse. Progress can start fast and feel great at first. There will be bumps; he will regress. How will we deal with that?

The traditional answer has always been discipline. “Push him through it. Don’t let him quit.” The reason I’m so against this way of training is the number of horses who flunk out, damaged and frightened. Certainly not all horses but too many.

So, this is my annual reminder that horses aren’t any closer to perfect than we are. They have bad days but we don’t have to turn it into a bad month. Or a bad life. At this time of great stress holiday season, it’s good to give horses a break and remember the big picture.

Most horses live a long life. Not long enough for us loving, greedy humans, but still, a long life. The majority of their lives is spent learning, and then aging. That mid-life sweet spot is comparatively short. Rushing to the sweet spot to make it last longer is the real dream (or fault) most of us share.

Understandable that we might push harder than we intended. It doesn’t make us bad riders, just human ones. Forgive yourself. And forgive horses for not living long enough.

Then pretend you have all the time in the world. Keep an eye on the horizon and celebrate how far you’ve come. Remember how special it is when a horse volunteers. Remember that you sit in a sacred place. If you want to discipline something, start with your mind. Say good boy often.

When you do hit a training block, don’t fight. Shrug. Exhale. Ride around it and approach it in a different way. Railbirds are notoriously short-sighted, so work for your horse instead. Riding isn’t war; it’s an art. You and your horse are building a masterpiece.

If you want to work something on contact, keep your expectations on a short rein. Then your dreams can gallop the infinite, where they belong. Learn to tell the difference.

It bears repeating: The arc of a horse’s life (or our own) doesn’t look like a golden rainbow. It looks more like the jagged readout of a heart monitor. There are ups and downs in each heartbeat. It’s how you can tell we’re alive.

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

 

 

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
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon
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
Blog  FB  Email  Author  FB  Tweet  Amazon