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
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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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Being Grateful for Things You Don’t Like.

WMDodgerRideMy favorite training mentor had a habit that drove me nuts. She would be working with a horse who spooked or flipped his head or had some other issue that made him a disaster and when she climbed on, if you were close, you could hear her say in a low and quiet voice, “Goody, goody.” She would have a small smile and be cheerful.

The woman was nuts. It was like she couldn’t tell right from wrong. She loved a bad ride. It wasn’t that she wanted the adrenaline thrill of trying to stay on, and she didn’t pick fights. She just thought a conversation with a horse got more interesting once some resistance showed up.

I was a novice rider just beginning to compete a young horse and neither of us was very confident. One of us was trying way too hard. And it was so important that he was perfect. We hated problems. Okay it was me, I hated it when he was bad.

So I was a conditional rider. I did well if my horse was confident and in a good mood, but if something went sideways, I couldn’t cope. I didn’t act out and jerk on his mouth or use a whip. Instead I got quietly resistant. Every cue started with the disciplinary word don’t. Don’t spook, don’t run off, don’t quit. If I could just try to control his every breath, just not allow him to come apart… I was totally focused on resisting my horse’s resistance.

So naturally, my trainer ruined my Zen by celebrating the bad like she did.

Let me be clear: She was right. I was wrong and being a judgmental jerk, the kind of person who discriminates against imperfection. The kind of person that I don’t like much.

There is a tiny moment. It’s wedged right between the point where everything is going well and you love your ride, and that point where both you and your horse start to come apart. This tiny moment is when we stop listening and start ordering. And when a confused or frightened horse gets told that he’s wrong. Understanding gets sacrificed for external appearances. We become bullies, jerking and kicking, or just holding on for dear life. We become part of the problem.

But in that tiny moment, when you just start to feel him tense, you have a choice. You don’t have to flinch and take the bait. In that tiny moment, you could confound nay-sayers and defy common sense and choose to get happy. What possible good can come out of making your horse wrong?

Instead, you can take a breath and discipline yourself. You can do something totally crazy, you can smile and let your hands breathe out some reins. You can embrace the moment, leave the criticizing to others and get on about helping your horse. Less correction, more direction.

Amazingly, in that same tiny moment, he is right there wanting to hear from you. Horses live in the present and because horses don’t get stuck using right or wrong labels, they are more fluid. Their minds are capable of change, at least to the degree their rider’s are. In that instant you can turn things around with a pat. You can change who you are and how your horse responds.

I rode with this genius trainer for five years. I learned some fancy party tricks and by the end, people thought I had a great horse. The truth was even better than that, but first I had to learn to see my horse as perfect and willing, especially when appearances were deceiving. I held to that truth and it made all the difference.

At this time of Thanksgiving, I am so grateful for horses in my life, but even more than that, I am grateful for this bit of knowledge, passed down from my mentor. It’s enough to make you laugh at its simplicity–this awareness that it’s all good, if you approach it that way.

Too Pollyanna-ish for you? It’s true there are some big ugly issues in the horse world, like slaughter and abuse. Things so nasty that it’s easier to look away and ignore them. It can take some strength to look that kind of darkness in the face and not flinch. To take a breath and start to work on a positive solution. My perfect horses taught me that keeping an open mind and expecting the best beats name-calling and whining about what is wrong–every. single. time.

“My horse has a problem with his canter depart.” “You can’t save them all.”

Now I’m the trainer and with a nod to my mentor, I say, “Goody, goody.” Because I know the one the rider thinks has the problem, is not really the one with the problem at all. Because this is a chance for something good to happen.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Telling Horror Stories

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People love to tell horror stories. Once they know that I have horses, they can’t resist telling me about getting bucked off, run away with, or stepped on.  Somehow this makes them very cool and the horses very stupid.

I tend to defend the horses, most are pretty honest. Is it possible that when your horse tenses, you actually cue the problem behavior? Your body language says, “OMG, we’re gonna die!!”and he hears you loud and clear. A lot of times, horses are totally justified, and the rider who intends to blame her horse actually ends up inadvertently bragging about her own ignorance.

Once while scribing at a dressage show, a well-known trainer came in on a very green (imported) horse, who was understandably nervous about the judge’s stand. The trainer made jokes to the judge about the horse being stupid. She used harsh words and the judge laughed. Hearing that interaction has colored how I see this trainer. It’s probably a good thing I’m not a judge, I might disqualify half the rides.

I hear the bad stories from new clients, but the tone is different, almost an apology. “He doesn’t load in the trailer.” “He pulls on the reins.” “He hates to canter.” Asking for help is a great time to tell the bad story for the last time.

Sometimes in a lesson, the dreaded problem, so horrible and unforgivable, goes away and the rider doesn’t notice, she’s too busy complaining.  The truth is that most horses let go of an unwanted behavior about as quick as their riders do. Words are so powerful, and recalling a bad moment brings that experience into the present moment all over again. What if having a winning story to tell is as easy as using other words?

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new. Socrates

Step one is to tell a better story. Words are so powerful and especially when combined with an intuitive 1200 pound animal who reflects them right back at you.  “Good boy” praise when your horse is still thinking about a task can build confidence and try. If you are too stingy to say “good boy”, consider taking up gardening.

At first it takes a bit of discipline, so much of our ordinary language is grounded in problems and lack. Pick a positive set of words, let them be the rule. Keep taking deep breaths, and give your horse time to think.  New story, new ending.

If you are afraid your positive affirmations will make you seem arrogant, then remember your sense of humor: “White plastic bags in a 35 mph wind make my horse was a bit playful.”  “There’s opportunity for growth with our canter depart.” “We had excellent forward all the way back to the barn.”

If you are afraid that positive reinforcement will make you look weak, go ahead, praise your horse all the way to the Winner’s Circle.

It is the lowest form of horsemanship to blame or ridicule your horse. When you talk trash about your horse, you betray your partnership. Always. If you do have a bad ride, it’s just good manners for the rider to take responsibility. And of course, if you have a great ride, your horse gets all the credit. The people who matter know the truth and so does your horse.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

“A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.” – Herm Albright.